Biko Entrega

De Casiopea

TítuloThe Price of Progress?
AsignaturaPoética General Mg 2T 2015
Del CursoPoética General Mg 2T 2015
CarrerasArquitectura, Ciudad y Territorio
Alumno(s)Langston Biko Tabor

The Price of Progress?

The technology we rely on so heavily for our daily lives comes with a price, one that we have largely been willing to pay in the future. The bill for our technological progress is coming due now, and the results are frightening. That the earth is warming is now indisputable. From the website of the Union of Concerned Scientists: “Every one of the past 37 years has been warmer than the 20th century average. The 12 warmest years on record have all occurred since 1998. The hottest year ever recorded for the contiguous United States occurred in 2012”. The warming of the earth will have, and currently is having, severe consequences for communities across the globe. Longer and more intense wildfires, more frequent heat waves, increased flooding during monsoon seasons, and rising sea levels all are effects that can be attributed to global warming. Communities will be forced to adapt to new weather patterns, new infrastructure burdens, and new resource scarcities. While all population centers must confront this new reality to some extent, the hardest burden will fall upon coastal cities, where rapidly rising sea levels will affect almost every facet of life.

Given the dangers posed by the rise of the ocean, it is understandable that planners, scientists, and communities are viewing the rising sea primarily as a threat. But is there a better way to under-stand the relationship between sea and city?

The Cause of Global Warming

The first step in this evolution must be to understand the source of the problem we face today. This is not simply a matter of listing the most serious contributors of CO2 pollution (power plants, cars, factory farming). Rather, it must involve recognition of the very things that drive us to pollute in the name of progress. The root causes of global warming lie not with the technology we have used to change our planet, but rather the mindset behind their use. After all, what is oil but decomposed matter? What is a car but a means of transportation? What is a farm but a herd of cows? How can we reconcile these innocuous, harmless pieces of ‘technology’ with the results that their use has reaped?

The Birth of Science and Art

To understand this phenomenon, we must start at the beginning: the birth of both art and science. Joseph Bronowski tackles this subject by way of the architecture of the Pueblo people of Arizo-na, USA. In The Ascent of Man, he posits that there are two distinct forms of architecture, derived from the tools which were used to construct them:

I am making a basic separation between architecture as moulding and architecture as the assembly of parts. That seems a very simple distinction: the mud house, the stone masonry. But in fact it represents a fundamental intellectual difference, not just a technical one. And I believe it to be one of the most important steps that man has taken, wherever and whenever he did so: the distinction between the moulding action of the hand, and the splitting or analytic action of the hand. It seems the most natural thing in the world to take some clay and mould it into a ball, a little clay figure, a cup, a pit house. At first we feel that the shape of nature has been given us by this. But, of course, it has not. This is the man-made shape. What the pot does is to reflect the cupped hand; what the pit house does is to reflect the shaping action of man. And nothing has been discovered about nature herself when man imposes these warm, rounded, feminine, artistic shapes on her. The only thing that you reflect is the shape of your own hand. But there is another action of the human hand which is different and opposite. That is the splitting of wood or stone; for by that action the hand (armed with a tool) probes and explores beneath the surface, and thereby becomes an instrument of discovery. There is a great intellectual step forward when man splits a piece of wood, or a piece of stone, and lays bare the print that nature had put there before he split it. [1]

In this distinction, there is no value judgment made about the values of one architecture to another. There is however a recognition that man has two very distinct ways in relating to the world around him. For Bronowski, this was a dichotomy based around the way in which man first used tools: either with nature, or against her. This same dichotomy can be applied to the fields of art and science, allowing us to consider them as one interconnected system, rather than two completely separate ones. Art is the practice of molding the world around us whose result reflects something of ourselves. Science is the practice of splitting the world around us to discover something new about nature itself.

But in reality, neither exists separate from the other. We find some of the greatest works of art, such as Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper, beautiful because of science; specifically because it obeys so precisely the mathematical concept of the golden proportion, often represented by the Greek letter phi. Similarly, the inherent artistic beauty of some molecules is so apparent that it has influenced the scien-tists working towards their discovery themselves. In his 1968 book about his discovery of the double helix, the building block of life on earth, James Watson says that part of what convinced his fellow scientist Rosalind Franklin of the validity of the discovery was the pure beauty of the form: Rosy…accepted the fact that the structure was too pretty not to be true [2]. Architects have been inspired by the form as well, with work beginning in Taipei in 2013 on a 20 story tower designed by Vincent Callebaut in the form of the double helix.

This dichotomy of our interaction with our environment can also be the paradigm through which we understand different cultures. A particularly strong difference can be drawn between the occidental Christian ideals of possessing land and the majority of the cultures they encountered upon their arrival in North America. While it is mostly a myth that Native tribes had no concept of the land ownership, it is true that they often placed different values on the land than the European conquerors and settlers that would come to dominate the area later. In the Pacific Northwest area of modern day USA, the native tribes relied heavily on fishing for their sustenance, especially the seasonal salmon that returned every year to freshwater streams and rivers to spawn. While the rights to certain areas of the streams were often privately held and passed from father to son, the person or family responsible was expected to fish in a way that cared for the health of the land for the future [3]. After enough fish had been caught, they would allow the rest to continue upstream to ensure a healthy amount survived to provide food for the upcoming years. This shows a sense of land ownership that is both private, in that one family has rights to the area, and public, in that said family uses the land in a way that provides for the entire tribe. Like art, or Bronowski’s architecture of molding, this concept of land ownership is a reflection of ourselves; a recognition of our place in nature.

The foundation of Spanish cities in America provides a counterpoint. Nina Veregge describes some of the process of founding:

The actual ritual of founding a town including, gathering all the settlers on the site of the plaza at the center of the grant and marking off the surrounding streets and lots, including those for the church and priest's house, soldiers' quarters, and casas reales. The settlers would also accompany the governor and surveyor in marking the boundaries of the grant and tierras baldias (communal lands) within it. Finally, "in accordance with ancient Spanish custom, they would have pulled up grass, thrown rocks in the air, and shouted 'Long live the King!"' all symbolic acts of taking possession. [4]

This concept of land use prioritizes possession and boundaries, like the tools that Bronowski describes in Ascent of Man, it is designed to split and separate the earth. It emphasizes order and control, a necessity for the Spanish that were attempting to establish an empire thousands of miles of ocean away from their base of power. Their solution was the city, a physical representation of social control. As Bronowski puts it: A city is stones and a city is people; but it is not a heap of stones, and it is not just a jostle of people. In the step from the village to the city, a new community organisation is built, based on the division of labour and on chains of command. [5]


  1. Bronowski, Jacob, 1974, The ascent of man. Boston : Little, Brown.
  2. Watson, James D, 1968, The double helix; a personal account of the discovery of the structure of DNA. New York : Atheneum.
  3. Robert Higgs, Legally Induced Technical Regress in the Washington Salmon Fishery, Research in Economic History, Vol. 7 (1982), pp. 55-86, at 59
  4. Veregge, Nina, "Transformations of the Spanish Urban Landscape in the American Southwest 1821-1900" Journal of the Southwest
  5. Bronowski, Jacob, 1974, The ascent of man. Boston : Little, Brown.

Dichotomy as Paradigm

Through this paradigm, the challenges of global warming come into a new focus. In 2005 New Orleans, USA experienced the costliest natural disaster that the US has ever seen: Hurricane Katrina. While the hurricane caused damage all along the Gulf Coast, it is primarily known for the catastrophic effect its landfall had on the city of New Orleans. Severe levee failure and storm surge resulted in massive flooding, with up to 80% of the city eventually experiencing flooding. The storm resulted in 1,400 direct deaths and the city lost over half its population due to displacement.

The aftermath of the storm and the handling of the crisis it presented by the George W. Bush presi-dential administration is a large part of the lessons to be learned about Katrina, but there is another, more globally relevant question that can be asked: Why did this happen? Why was the city of New Orleans so profoundly affected by this particular storm?

One answer is to be found in New Orleans historical relationship with technology. Founded on the banks of the Mississippi River in 1718 by French settlers, the proximity of the delta and the river caused frequent flooding. In order to prevent the flooding the settlers constructed a series of levees, which by 1812 reached as far as 165 miles upstream; Being surrounding by swampland was not conducive to the health of the city’s citizenry however, and the price for their location was paid steeply with lives lost. Between 1817 and 1905 over 40,000 New Orleans residents were killed by yellow fever. In response the city undertook a project of draining the surrounding wetlands, to kill off the mosquitos that carry the disease as well as to encourage growth outward. The city further expanded with the discovery of oil and gas in the area. Between the 1960’s and 80’s energy companies dredged canals for exploration and transport, and today There are currently 10 major navigation canals and 9,300 miles of pipelines in coastal Louisiana serving about 50,000 oil and gas production facilities [1]

All of these events, from the founding until the hurricane that devastated the region in 2005, exclusively follow one path: that of tools, science, and control. And what was the end result of all these actions? The most devastating was the progressive death of the areas wetlands. The draining of the surrounding areas, combined with shipping channels that allow saltwater farther inland to kill plants and vegetation resulted in the erosion of tens of thousands of acres of wetlands. Wetlands, particularly the cypress forests endemic in the area, serve as a first line of defense against inclement weather and storm surge, taking the brunt of the force and water before it can reach the levees. One of the areas worst affected by Hurricane Katrina was that of the Lower Ninth Ward an area constructed at a higher elevation than the majority of New Orleans. It’s flooding was due to the proximity to a nearly derelict shipping canal that runs through the heart of what used to be the bordering cypress wetland, but is now open area. After the storm attempts were made to reinforce the levees that failed, and to better prepare them for the next threat. And more will come, not just from the increasingly strong hurricanes produced in the Gulf of Mexico, but from the sea itself. As the Environmental Health Perspectives report notes:

The Gulf of Mexico is also subject to the general sea level rise being observed worldwide, with po-tential ramifications for the Gulf Coast. Over the past century, the warming climate has pushed up mean sea level four to eight inches worldwide, and computer models suggest that this rise will probably accelerate, according to a 2001 report of the U.S. Global Change Research Program, Climate Change Impacts on the United States: The Potential Consequences of Climate Variability and Change. By 2100, global sea level is projected to rise an additional 19 inches along most of the U.S. coastline. [2]

A Need for Balance

What the case of New Orleans demonstrates is the dangers of a faulty mindset when utilizing technolo-gy. While technology can be used towards a purpose we would consider inherently good, such as the eradication of yellow fever, it in itself has no value and the results can be much different from those expected. It was not the fault of the dredging machine, or the pavement or shipping barge that the hur-ricane was able to breach the levees. Rather it was the lack of proper balance between the these two interconnected parts, science and art.

What type of solutions can we arrive at? In New Orleans, it was the expansion and partition of territory that created the shipping canals and dried wetlands. It was science behind the desire to dis-covery new oil deposits that killed the trees and plants in the delta. It was the splitting of the land to discover what was underneath that doomed New Orleans. To put it back together, it will take an equally fervent dedication to balance between the poles. A communal understanding of how the land under your feet and around you belongs to both you and the whole city. A recognition that the energy and shipping industries are vital to the economy of the region, but that the needs of one industry should not outweigh the social health of the populace. And a movement towards preservation through creation, with educational and recreational areas that maintain the natural state of the wetlands.


  1. Tibbetts, John. “Louisiana’s Wetlands: A Lesson in Nature Appreciation.” Environmental Health Perspectives 114.1 (2006): A40–A43. Print
  2. Tibbetts, John. “Louisiana’s Wetlands: A Lesson in Nature Appreciation.” Environmental Health Perspectives 114.1 (2006): A40–A43. Print