RCA Architectural Annual 2011
Seismic Shift


Charlotte Skene Catling




The Need for Narrative


Tectonic plates cover the earth’s surface like fragments of eggshell, and the deep heat of the earth’s core sends tremors shuddering through them every day. There are roughly 100,000 earthquakes every year. About 90% of them, and 80% of the most powerful, occur along the Ring of Fire, a lethal curve of fault lines, deep trenches and volcanic arcs in the Pacific Ocean.


Only 1,000 earthquakes a year cause physical damage, but what do seismic shifts – real ones and metaphors – mean within architecture? Real ones, bluntly, destroy it. Everything that is stable becomes fluid and unpredictable. The earth itself rises up as the enemy, vast structures explode, solid surfaces undulate as if alive. Rational structures become crazed, fractured, deconstructions. Disasters can reduce entire civilizations to nothing: whole cultures are lost, shaken to rubble, engulfed in fire, drowned in larva or washed away. The intensity of earthquakes is measured in architecture: buildings become seismographs, scales used for measuring damage. The Rossi-Forel scale has ten levels, from a ‘feeble shock’, causing doors and windows to move, through the oscillation of chandeliers; fall of plaster, ringing of church bells; collapse of chimneys, cracks in the walls of buildings, and finally, level X great disaster, ruins. Architecture broadcasts, amplifies and makes the deeper geological world visible.


This March 2011 an earthquake of magnitude 9.0, followed by a 20m high Tsunami, killed 10,000 people in Japan. On March 15th, Shintaro Ishara, The Governor of Tokyo, apologized for interpreting these disasters as a form of ‘tembatsu’ or divine retribution for ‘selfishness, greed and a desire for wealth’: the ‘accumulated, long standing Japanese red heart’.

Shintaro Ishara is also a novelist. His remarks are insensitive and dubious, but they highlight the human need to attribute meaning to otherwise apparently pointless devastation; to overlay a narrative of good and evil to make events comprehensible and to simultaneously bring them back under human control.


Disaster and God go together… Did He? Could He? Is He? Heinrich Kleist used the seismic chaos of Santiago in 1647 as the focus of The Earthquake in Chile (1807). The story centers on the forbidden relationship between Jeronimo and Josephe. One imprisoned and the other condemned to death by society and the church, they were both liberated by the catastrophic earthquake. Finally, at a service held in the lone surviving church in Santiago, they were seen as inviting what the Governor of Tokyo would have called a ‘tembatsu’ to the city, and were clubbed to death by the wild, god-fearing mob. 

Voltaire referred to many real disasters in ‘Candide, or Optimism’, including the earthquake and tsunami that destroyed Lisbon on November 1, 1775. He used disaster to argue against there being a god, and as an attack against the general Leibnizian optimism prevailing at that time. ‘All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds’, Candide’s foolish tutor Pangloss intoned at the scene of each grotesque horror. Pangloss was Voltaire’s stand in for Leibniz. The book was a scandal. 


Disaster is used as both narrative and critique. Narrative is laid over disaster as a means to understand it, to gain control of it, to put the human back at the centre and to harness it as a means of manipulation. Disaster is made legible through architecture.

Can narrative have the same relationship to architecture? What is narrative architecture, and what is architecture without it? We’re surrounded by architecture stripped of meaning, where the building becomes a form or object reduced to representing technological salvation. Seismic shifts are engineered out and towers will get infinitely taller in an almost biblical challenge. Here progress is focused on making architecture disaster proof, earthquake immune, flood- and bomb-blast resistant. It effectively becomes narrative proof too; nothing can happen to these buildings or to the people in them. While all architecture is essentially optimistic, this is a foolish optimism; a return to the eternal, to paradise on earth, to ‘indestruction’. These are buildings that fetishise fear, filled with humans who won’t age.


The foundations are important too, this new architecture requires the leveled disaster plain, a tabula rasa, and promises a future of ‘no more leveling’; stability. The past is gone, complexity removed, all memory erased. This is the era of the ‘Micro-Megas’, the rise and rise of the Small-Minded, Big-Building…

The Taipei 101 tower in Taiwan has a four-storey, 728 tonne, solid-steel pendulum suspended between the 88th and 92nd floors. It is the counterweight to tragedy and the technological and aesthetic focal point of the building; an architectural pea-brain. There are a lot more on ‘ – the world’s finest resource for skyscraper and urbanism enthusiasts’…

Disaster also means re-building. “There is a silver lining,” said Raymond Joseph, the Haitian ambassador to the United States, “What was not politically possible was done by the earthquake. We will rebuild differently. The future of Haiti will be very different from the past.” In March 2010 the President of Haiti unveiled a $3.9 billion plan of reconstruction. Disaster is good for the business of architecture.

In March 2011, Takayoshi Igarashi, Hosei University professor and adviser to the Japanese Prime Minister, asked for a reconstruction package of at least $245 billion: “the nation’s biggest investment in urban planning in decades”. He said, “The lesson we need to take away from this disaster is that we have to restructure Japan as an entire nation”.

The past is linked to the present through the architecture that has withstood disaster. The Incas used principles of passive structural control and energy dissipation in their massive stone structures, the Chinese added sticky rice and flexibility to their mortar and in Anyoshi, the Japanese left inscribed ‘Tsunami Stones’ to warn their forebears, ‘Do not build your homes below this point!’ From the horses painted 32,000 years ago, gleaming to life on the bulging walls of the Chauvet caves, to the cavalry galloping across the Partheon freize, these remains link ‘the beginnings of the modern human soul’, as Werner Herzog described his Cave of Forgotten Dreams, to us today and beyond.


But what happens when buildings themselves become disasters? When the narrative goes wrong? When artificial memory attempts to replace the real thing? The Aceh Tsunami Museum in Indonesia opened controversially: millions of dollars were spent on a monument to the 230,000 killed in 2004, rather than on housing for the 700 homeless families remaining alive. Ridwan Kamil, a local architect, designed the four story, 2,500 square metre building. Visitors can run to the ‘escape hill’ contained within it to escape from future tsunamis, or simply to flee from the exhibitions, one a traumatising ‘electronic simulation of the Indian Ocean earthquake’ that triggered the original disaster. 


Disaster became a spectacularly successful mainstream genre of its own in the US in the 1970’s: the seismic horror in Earthquake became a human leveler, and a release from real-life horrors such as the energy crisis, recession, Watergate and Vietnam. The trailer announced: “Charlton Heston, Ava Gardner, plus the City of Los Angeles, and its thousands of people, living, loving, planning, fighting until nature’s most violent upheaval forces them to battle and claw for life itself!” Escape real-life disaster by watching an artificial, techni-colour version instead. 

Earthquake was the first film to use ‘Sensurround’ which recreated the vibrating tremors with massive sub-woofer speakers. Low frequency sounds that were felt more than heard made onscreen earth tremors and bomb raids throbbingly real. Here the film physically spills into the surrounding architecture, blurring the edge between the narrative and reality and for the most part, separating sensation from consequences. But not always: Mann’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood had to install safety nets to catch plaster falling from the ceilings when Earthquake was screened. 


From the fetishizing of fear, to safe disaster in comfort, Constantin Boym, who trained as an architect at the Moscow Architectural Institute has created a series of sinister souvenirs to mark the end of the 20th Century. Buildings of Disaster are ‘miniature replicas or famous structures where some tragic or terrible events happened to take place’. He reflects on how sites of tragedy and disaster often become tourist destinations, and in an oversaturated media, a quick historical shorthand. ‘Disasters stand as people’s measure of history’. This is disaster as celebrity. The series, with a limited gold-plated edition, includes: the Neverland Ranch, the World Trade Centre 9/11, the OJ Car Chase, Pentagon 9/11, Watergate, Oklahoma City Federal Building, the Unabomber, and Waco, Texas. 


What is the future of narrative? Can there be ‘narrative offspring’ or genetic family trees? God’s Villa is the in-bred descendent of Godzilla; Godzilla was a monster of destruction created as the mutant progeny of the horrific man-made disasters of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the embodiment of chaos. He became a metaphor for nuclear power and menace in Japan in the 1950s, and is the natural grandchild of Namazu-e, the earthquake catfish who emerged at the time of the devastating Japanese earthquake, tsunami and fires of 1855. Michael Lee is an artist intrigued by how the architectural environment is ‘conceived of, and affected by human aspirations’, and through exploring it, he has produced accurate models of demolished, overlooked and forgotten buildings. For the Singapore Biennale 2011, Lee created ‘Office Orchitect’, an invented architect called KS Wong; his entire life, home and studio. God’s Villa is the creation of his creation: one of the many models found in the fictitious Wong’s studio, whose architectural work Lee describes as ‘anally rigorous’. This is narrative as a hall of mirrors, where fictitious figures create the new fictions.


Once upon a time, on the 8th floor of the Royal College of Art, there arrived a new architectural proposition: Nigel Coates, Architect-Flaneur-Dandy. He brought with him an approach called narrative architecture and created an entire school of thought and practice around him.

Since his early days with NATO (Narrative Architecture Today) at the Architectural Association in the 1980’S, Nigel’s architecture has re-discovered cities through a subversive exploration of them, where psycho-geographic mappings become the built architectural expression. Mixtacity, Barroccabilly, Click Clack Blonde: his titles and drawings contain contradiction and movement, a sense that something has just happened, and that more will. They contain excitement.

It is extraordinary that an architecture so embedded in the secret languages and the hidden codes of a city could actually be built. But it has been; with The Wall, like throwing sodium into water, he created a mad cultural flash by placing an ancient Roman structure, skewed by London nightlife, at the centre of Tokyo’s fashion world. For his students he embodies an implicit challenge and all the liberation of the Situationists via Punk: ‘Be Reasonable – Demand the Impossible’…

Nigel’s Guide to Ecstacity, described as ‘monograph, manifesto, travelogue, history, autobiography, novel’, is an exhilarating imaginary place made up fragments of seven existing cities where the Ecstacitizens are driven by desire through this multicultural hybrid to invent a unique new urbanism. Cultural references become fresh and dangerous through the way they’re combined. They are also very funny. New narratives emerge when disparate ingredients are juxtaposed and set in tension. His architecture straddles high and pop culture, and like English music and fashion, the lurking presence of history runs through Nigel’s work the way the underground rivers of London snake just beneath the surface. He combines an anarchic irreverence for the past with an erotic embrace of the future.

For the Venice Biennale 2008, Nigel created a panoramic architectural enclosure. In it, he slid projections of film, made in collaboration with John Maybury, of dancers bodies over images of Naples, while an audience sat on subverted riding saddles of burnished leather and other almost human forms that were at once sensuous, familiar and strange. All this under ‘cloudeliers’; themselves miniature crystalline cities.

Nigel made the RCA an extension of his thinking, his practice and his witty, infectious and restless curiosity. Everything was relevant, which made the context of the RCA the perfect extension; here art, sculpture, fashion and the genetics department at Imperial College, together with the messy complexity of real life, were all taken as generators for design.

It is only architects themselves who can limit the range of their subject: in truth nothing is irrelevant to architecture; and nothing should be excluded from the teaching of it. There is a distinction between learning to build and mastering architecture. The fundamental role of the architect is to observe, to assimilate and then to translate vastly complex ideas into a coherent and legible form. This may involve building at the end, but increasingly it may not. When done well, it is an immensely valuable skill.

We have reached a critical point culturally and economically where the architect needs to be more agile than ever before, where the ability to recognize narratives, from the personal to the global, in order to be able to respond and reply to them is going to be essential for survival.

2011. Seismic shift. Nigel Coates resigns as Head of Architecture after 16 years. So a new story for the department begins. To the future of narrative in architecture, and to Nigel’s continued legacy at the RCA. And, of course, to everyone living happily ever after…