catastrophe prototyping fields

Calgary’s massive 2013 flooding was in many ways an unexpected yet otherwise highly predictable event that drastically shifted the public’s consciousness toward the possibility, magnitude and frequency of flooding within the City of Calgary and the region at large.  And while the sheer intensity of the flooding garnered most of the public’s attention, the indeterminacy of its impacts throughout the built environment produced perhaps the most complex and enduring effects that we are still dealing with today.

The lack of awareness, understanding and acceptance of the region’s likelihood to flood (the city does lie squarely in the path of a massive river basin flow), provides the impetus for a proposal to dedicate a series of otherwise undeveloped areas adjacent to the Bow and Elbow Rivers as Catastrophe Prototyping Fields (CPF’s).  These hyper-activated landscapes would be iteratively modified overtime both by floods and through fabricated interventions to induce a broad spectrum of fluid and material behaviors during flood events.  Functioning both as a territory for a new kind of inhabitable public space as well as operating as a scientific resource for urban and geological research, CFP’s would integratively partner with the forces of nature, industry, art, science and the public to re-imagine the City of Calgary in actualized and materially specific ways.

Fundamental to the value of CPF’s is the scalability of fluid behaviors (think mini wave machines that simulate tsunamis) such that identified patterns and behaviors can be scaled up or down and applied to things as small as buildings and built elements all the way up to the city and even the region as a whole.  Lest we not forget that Alberta is an industry leader in massively modifying landscapes.  One only needs to travel a few hours north to the Oil Sands to experience this claim first hand.  So rather than becoming a political claim (which it is certainly not), this proposal exploits the unique industrial, financial, cultural, geographical and intellectual capabilities of Calgary when speculating upon its future.

While the proposal itself advocates a series of CPF’s distributed throughout the city, the images in print depict the Bowmont Natural Park Area (BNPA) functioning as a municipal CPF.  Due to its unique position in the city (where the Bow first meets Calgary) as well as identifying Bowness as a having been particularly hard hit during the 2013 flood, the BNPA is an ideal location for a CPF both for prototyping off-site solutions and as a way of mitigating the effects of future flooding upon the Bowness community.  The site, while monitored in real-time during flooding as well as undergoing geological sampling between events, would also function similarly to the BNPA when not flooding: as an inhabitable public amenity.

The sooner we start seeing nature as something we are a part of rather than something that warrants containment or preservation, the sooner we can unlock the intelligence and beauty that such a partnership can provide.  But cities and the populations they engender need spaces to undertake these explorations.  But laboratories and computers in isolation are not enough.  The answers necessary to address the problems of today and tomorrow lie within the built environment itself precisely because it is built.  But the project of the city is always incomplete and it takes innovative solutions that in all likelihood lie beyond the capability of the human imagination. Imagining, imaging and accessing solutions that lie beyond the thinkable may be our best hope for designing a future for cities that might actually exist.

Design and prototyping with the School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape (SAPL), University of Calgary, including Josh Taron, Ryan Cook. Introduction by Josh Taron. 2014.