Posted on February 22, 2011


The pictures jar our senses: buildings half-standing amidst their own rubble. We needn’t see tangled bodies and fractured family life; it’s obvious from the torn tenements as the story wrenches us into the image. I’m always angry when I see one building shattered while others stand. What were the builders thinking?

We have the technology to build structures that survive earthquakes. It is more costly. For whom is that a barrier?

For a lot of people, I quickly remember. Charlatans exist, throwing up pathetic structures in impoverished backwaters then charging outrageous rents. Even in wealthy areas, building inspectors charged to protect citizens with a code are told to “look the other way” as new structures go up. Many buildings, however, are owned and inhabited by people who are just trying to make their way with their fingers crossed that the disaster doesn’t come to them. They have neither the means nor the confidence to put so much effort into something as unseen and inedible as an I-beam.

Because of all those factors, we will continue to be jarred by the pictures when disasters strike. Rescue workers will continue to run from their homes donning hardhats and grabbing rescue packs. There will be a rush of media attention to the safety of our bridges and buildings, with talking heads assuring the public that that can’t happen to us. Then we will settle back to our complacencies and their story, which will continue to be tragic, will fade from public view.

People are shaken as often as buildings are, occasional shifting ground underneath rattling their foundations and destroying the parts of their structures that aren’t up to code, exposing weaknesses that lie unseen, and taking down strong structures that simply exist in the path of greatest upheaval. Things, and people, that appear well-built, sometimes fall.

Western people are all about insurance. Planning. Avoiding catastrophe. That’s why I’m initially angry when I look at those pictures. The dance of Shiva, destroying as important as building, is not my knee-jerk view. I like continuity and safety. It appeals to me that Brigham Young looked at the cracks in the foundation of the Salt Lake Temple and had them tear out 8 years worth of work because he knew the temple should stand through anything. I think some things should be built to last, that when everything else is shaken, some things, and people, should be refuge in the storm.

I’m having an inspection lately, and taking serious the reports. Some things are changing, some visible, some not. I’m trying to be rigorous, asking myself never to look the other way, to have the courage to do a major structural renovation. It seems better to do this while the weather is fair, to check the ground before I expand, and to evaluate the design before I invite others to inhabit. It seems wise to make sure I am up to code, as well as the things I build. Built to last.

When the ground shakes, as it sometimes does, I plan to be … unshaken … with a hard hat and an aid bag in the entry closet. Definitely still in the design stage, still pulling out foundation stones, but with a solid plan. And when the ground shifts and when the shaken fall, maybe I’ll be free to be of use somewhere.

Posted in: Uncategorized