Life After People : The Architecture of Deconstruction

buildings_decomposing.jpg Segue from my previous post:  This month the History Channel is premiering a special called “Life After People” where a group of engineers, artists and visual effects technicians have created simulated long term decay scenarios for large, well-known structures such as the Golden Gate Bridge or the Sears Tower. 


The emphasis of the show will be, of course, on the “money shot” moments of collapse of, say, the upper section of the Eiffel Tower… as opposed to the visually boring but scientifically more complex process of slow corrosion of the iron bolts and rivets and the periodic wind shear and torque stresses that, over the course of many decades, weaken enough of the beam connections to cause a partial structural failure. But apparently they’ve baked all that science into their visually stunning effects, with maybe just enough unrealism to make us nerds argue about the details of this or that scene. 

The fact of the matter is, with ALL good structural design, a key part of the process for the architect/engineer is to consider how something will fall apart, before finalizing the design. Elevator brakes are designed to be triggered before the cable fails. Although glass is pretty strong, we avoid using it for structural purposes because it’s very brittle and when it goes, it goes.  One of the things we like about wood structures is that, as they fail, they tend to “complain” a lot… giving people a chance to get out of there.  The phrase “single point of failure” keeps many engineers up at night, and not just structural engineers. 

This metaphor is a powerful one, and I’ve had many opportunities to apply it to business processes, relationships,  contracts, IT specifications and more.  Deliberate weakness points. Feedback systems. Contingencies. Fallbacks. Redundancies. Paths of least resistance. There are many ways to design something so that you can influence the way it will ultimately come apart. In fact, some designs earn almost all their value just in terms of this consideration.

How else can we apply this idea?  Well, in terms of mitigating environmental impact of manufactured goods, now more than ever, chemical engineers are spending the time to figure out how the things we create and consume will decay in the environment, or in our bodies. That’s a prime example of the “Architecture of Deconstruction.” Not to be confused with the once-trendy Deconstructionism, of course.

Lastly, going back to the whole post-human apocalypse / dark humor thing, I just want to plug my favorite website on the subject:  EXIT MUNDI ( )  Choose your time frame of reference (“any day now,” “near future” or “distant future”), pour yourself a premium beverage and enjoy. 


About danspira

My blog is at: My face in real life appears at a higher resolution, although I do feel pixelated sometimes.

Posted on January 15, 2008, in Architecture, Business, Green Style. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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