“In Zone A, watching it in glorious real HD,” was the response from an architect a friend to whom I texted. We were communicating as Sandy’s surge moved toward what I knew was his exposed, low-lying loft in Brooklyn. I was worried. He seemed to be enjoying the show. As of this writing, seven people have died and billions of damage has been done, but what makes storms these days different is that they have become reality television shows, app feeds, and in general, the focal point of the web of mediation we have spun over our lives. We live under a veil, and even the most powerful realities become part of that derived universe.
I do not mean to detract from the seriousness of Hurricane Sandy’s effects, writing as I do, as an outsider safely on the side of the Appalachians where we only have some rain and wind to make us aware of the storm’s truly stupendous size. What interests me is the way in which such events, which used to just happen to us (though perhaps we have made them worse through our degradation of the environment) are now so predicted, anticipated, analyzed, and documented that they become shows, even, apparently, to those who are experiencing them. As the storm was hitting, residents of the East Coast were uploading supposed images of the storm to sites and tweets; pictures that turned out more often than not to be manufactured, altered, or just lifted straight from disaster flicks.
The opposite reaction was that of observers who sought out and welcomed the storm. “Don’t get me wrong, I realize how serious this is,” posted one of my Facebook friends in Washington, D.C., “but I do love a good storm.” Thrill seekers sought our boardwalks and jetties to get a full sense of Sandy’s might. Even in an HD and surround-sound age, the real thing is somehow more real, and we thrill at the sublime that tests our human existence.
So how was this as a real experience? “Bad storm for sure, lots of flooding,” was about all I could get out of my New York friends. As an aesthetic experience, Sandy disappointed. Its very size made it formless, an immense fury sending surges, winds, and rain so pervasive that they had no shape. This, in general, is the problem—again, from a visual standpoint—with hurricanes, as opposed to tornadoes: except from a satellite, you can’t point at them. Earthquakes have the same problem, but they tend to create a concrete realignment of form. Hurricanes flood and tear apart, kill and maim, but in a manner that swipes broad swathes of the landscape with a destructive hand of God. The most concrete destruction we saw from our safe suburban homes was the crane dangling off the ugly new skyscraper on 57th Street. It quickly became the focal point for the media, even though its danger was only potential and, compared to everything else, rather minor.
As the East Coast clears up, I am sure more wrenches in reality will become evident. Then we will clean up and rebuild, we will readjust our schedules, and we will wait for the next storm or disaster to offer us a good show. We will hope that our human defenses will stand up as well as they seem to have this time, and that the reality of nature will stay away from our own homes. We will hope that we will not lose power, so that we can stay plugged in and watch what is happening to us or our loved ones on our television, computer, and phone. We will tweet and message each other that we are OK, and thrill at a might that surpasses our understanding, if not our ability to represent.
Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.