Where is the border between progress and catastrophe? What happens when our surroundings change faster than our capacity to understand them? – There are lessons to be learned from catastrophic destruction, which teaches us something about any process of change, argues Ole Møystad.

“A city is dynamic – in a constant state of motion. There exists a continuous flow of goods and services, people, and information to, from and within a city. To understand a particular city, it is necessary to comprehend the underlying dynamics of the city and the surrounding area.”

(Doctrine for Urban Operations, Joint Publication 3–06 16. september 2002. int Chiefs of Staff, Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force, USA).

Like language, architecture is often considered one of the fundamental forms of cultural expression in a given society. That a society’s architecture is an expression of its culture, economy, and political life is hardly a controversial claim. We can safely assume that our architectural Umwelt is an intelligent system, developing and adapting in time with our economy, our politics, our technology, and our understanding of ourselves. In short, architecture is our culture expressed in dynamic and physical forms.1

What happens when these forms are subject to catastrophic change?

_The little Tower of Babel_, Peter Breughel the Elder, around 1563.

A society undergoing gradual and slow change is perceived as a society in harmony with itself, with an architectural Umwelt harmoniously balanced with tradition. If the pace of change in this architectural Umwelt accelerates, the changes will be understood as progress (for better or worse). If the pace of change accelerates to a point where the architecture that surrounds us changes at a rate outpacing our capacity to understand it, the changes will result in a sense of loss and disorientation. This can be caused by abrupt economic or political change, as in the case of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Armed conflict will also generate radically altered and arbitrary forms in our architectural Umwelt, as will hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis, or economic collapse.

While losing a friend or watching one’s house burn down are tragedies in their own right, but we accept such experiences, to an extent, as part of life. However, when loss becomes so total that it threatens the fundamental social and cultural structures we rely on to understand and organise our daily lives, it becomes catastrophic. When our Umwelt changes so drastically that conventions, habits, and patterns of understanding that have developed over time are suddenly rendered irrelevant, it threatens the systems of symbolisation that constitutes the basis of civilised society.2

In order to relate to such catastrophic change and collective loss, and thus to retain the capacity to rebuild, it is important to analyse those situations where physical architecture has outstripped collective comprehension. This is the architectural system in crisis; it is a crisis in culture and in civil society as much as it is a material and technical crisis.

In order to re-establish relationships and interactions with, understanding of, as well as transitivity within, our architectural Umwelt, one must first regenerate the capacity to read the architectural system. This necessitates development of and changes to the collective understanding of this system. This is a central point in any rapid process of change, particularly in reconstruction in the wake of war or natural disasters. A.P.S. Farooq Faryad, dean of The Academy of Fine Arts at Kabul University, during his 2005 visit to Oslo, expressed it thus: «There is no use building new houses if we don’t also build new thoughts».

Khao Lak, Thailand before and after the tsunami in 2004. _Photo: German Remote Sensing Data Centre, DLR._


The Tsunami that struck South-east Asia in 2005 was a catastrophe that claimed close to 200 000 lives in a matter of minutes, causing so much damage that attempting to quantify it is futile. There were victims far beyond the countries that were struck by the waves; global tourism thrust the tsunami into the Scandinavian Umwelt as well. Consequently, national governments in all affected countries were forced to reconsider their procedures and preparations for handling such disasters, and thus how they define their Umwelt.

Disasters force people to reflect on their lives and surroundings. If we consider the seventeen years of civil war in Lebanon as a process of political, social and urban structures changing so rapidly that society was incapable of developing concurrent understandings of them, it too assumes the contours of a disaster, playing out slowly, over extended periods of time. Most Lebanese people nevertheless exhibited an extraordinary capacity to develop new strategies for survival in step with the ongoing conflict, turning their civil war into a kind of urban hyperdynamic, an architectural Umwelt in pathologically rapid development.

In 1993, the French town of Lorient hosted an important conference on reconstruction. One of the conclusions reached by the conference was that the collective loss of familiar architectural surroundings, whether by war or natural disaster, is often lived in a similar way to the loss of a loved one.3 The loss is experienced in three phases: denial, acceptance, and the projection of the new circumstances onto one’s own future. This process takes time, as anyone who has suffered bereavement will readily understand. When loss is collective, it must be addressed collectively, a process that is infinitely more demanding, unstable, and prone to disruption and reversal.

In the wake of disaster, all loss is collective. In South-east Asia, this collective loss included not only lives, cities, and infrastructure, but entire communities. Several regions lost their economic basis, with a drastic reduction in previously stable income streams related to tourism. Parts of Indonesia and Sri Lanka saw a breakdown of fragile military truces between the state and separatist forces.

It is not hard to understand how complicated it must be to let these new conditions of life sink in, to accept them, and to reorient oneself to the new situation in order to inscribe one’s own understanding into a collective vision of a future.

Collateral Damage

Physical infrastructure (transport, water treatment, sanitation, telecommunication, energy supply, etc.) as well as buildings and the general urban landscape, are what comprise society’s physical, architectural Umwelt.4 This Umwelt is a reflection of social and cultural life, broadly understood. Every time something is built, every time a piece of architecture is added or altered, it is a projection of a future scenario – as desired by someone with the capacity to implement it.5 When we change our architectural Umwelt, we change our sociocultural lives, and vice versa.

When a society is struck by disaster, it can take anywhere from a few months to many years before the afflicted society develops an understanding of its new situation and inscribes the disaster into a collective vision of the future. The reconstruction initiated in this phase is necessarily laid out without waiting for society to get to grips with its loss.
The problem here is that reconstruction does not take as its point of departure the collective projections of the society in question, and thus overlooks or sidelines the socio-cultural life with which it must resonate. We know from experience that structures erected hastily, with emergency relief in mind, tend to become permanent features of the built environment.6 This reconstructed Umwelt will necessarily appear alien to the society in question. This in turn creates distance between people and their reconstructed Umwelt: a socio-cultural vacuum.

When the centre of Beirut was cleared of debris after the war, the city centre was left empty for a couple of years. The only signs of life were the archaeologists‘ red plastic buckets. During this time, the city centre only existed as enormous billboards carrying images of a reconstructed future. _Photo: OM._

St. Thérèse, Beirut. Chaldean church that lay on the green line, between the fronts. Behind the altar there is a warning about land mines in the sachristy. The church has since been demolished. _Photo: OM._

The more time one spends on processing denial and acceptance, the stronger the collective projections of the future can grow. The shorter the time spent on organising aid and reconstruction, the better the prospects of saving lives and averting further devastation. This contradiction is the basis for post-disaster collateral damage, the damage inflicted on the social, political, and cultural structures in a society by sending massive emergency aid into a socio-cultural vacuum.
After seventeen years of civil war, downtown Beirut was a mess of existing and non-existing properties, landlords and tenants, with no operative planning authority capable of connecting landlords to properties and co-ordinating reconstruction.7 A private development company, SOLIDERE, was granted a licence (via an amendment to the Lebanese constitution) to expropriate all properties in the central business district as well as conducting all planning and reconstruction. A master plan was completed and implemented, and the city centre is being rapidly rebuilt, albeit at the expense of old ownership structures and tenants’ rights. The core of the Lebanese capital is now one enormous real estate development project. This is a prime example of the unintended harm inflicted on civil society.

Ålesund, Norway, 2007. Catastrophic damage when the rock behind a new housing block gave way.

From San Fransisco 1906. After the great earthquake, soldiers and police were ordered to shoot til kill anyone caught looting or engaged in other criminal activity.

New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, 2005.

Disaster Capitalism

A disaster, and the socio-cultural vacuum that normally follows, leave in their wake a disoriented society vulnerable to intervention from without. A country or region struck by disaster is of course in need of help, and thus not in a position to impose conditions on other states who want to participate and invest in its reconstruction. This vulnerability, and the exploitation it allows the wealthy donor countries, has given rise to the expression “disaster capitalism”.8 In the aftermath of the catastrophic flood, Herman Kumara, head of the National Fisheries Solidarity Movement in Negombo, Sri Lanka, warned that the country would be faced with “another tsunami of corporate globalisation and militarisation (…) We see this as a plan of action amidst the tsunami crisis to hand over the sea and the coast to foreign corporations and tourism, with military assistance from the US Marines”.9 This is the voice of a society in desperate circumstances, and we could be forgiven for thinking that Kumara was exaggerating the dangers posed by the incipient changes. Nevertheless, it would be unwise to write his words off as hyperbolic desperation. There are countless examples of how coercive privatisation of public property, services and infrastructure have been forced on vulnerable countries: Naomi Klein describes several in the article “The Rise of Disaster Capitalism”.10

One cannot gloss over differences between war and natural disaster when seeking to explain the occurrence of catastrophic change. When describing what took place, and how the disaster developed, however, these distinctions become less important. The distinctions between destruction, reconstruction and straightforward construction are, on the other hand, essential to the understanding of the socio-cultural vacuum of the post-disaster phases and of the collateral damage this process will inevitably cause. Withholding emergency aid, or delaying post-disaster reconstruction is usually not a viable option. This means that it is absolutely crucial to develop an understanding of the socio-cultural vacuum that has arisen, including its political ramifications, if one wishes to minimise and mitigate post-disaster collateral damage.

“A disaster, and the socio-cultural vacuum that normally follows, leave in their wake a disoriented society vulnerable to intervention from without.”

Socio-cultural vacuums are generated by rapid change. A socio-cultural vacuum is itself a disaster for any society, but it also presents new possibilities. For the people living in a destroyed society to use the disaster as an opportunity for building a new future, however, they must first work through denial and acceptance in order to imagine a new future for themselves, before the disaster capitalists do it for them. How this is done is not simply a question of economic resources, but also cultural potential and resilience.

From Beirut 1995: _Une seule vie une seule loi_ – One life, one law. On a wall in the administration at the national museum. The museum was a strategic point and a military control post along the green line. _Photo: OM._

The Case of Beirut

The transition from destruction to reconstruction in Beirut took place in a socio-cultural vacuum that stretched more or less from the cease-fire agreed at Taef in 1989 to the gradual slide into more run-of-the-mill real estate development in the mid 1990’s. The reconstruction was financed and administered as though it were a case of a regular large-scale real estate development, and the collateral damage, in the form of social and political alienation and tension, was so great that it threatened to overwhelm the process of reconstruction entirely.

Beirut’s disaster started in 1975. From that point, the war raged with varying degrees of intensity until it gradually died out in 1991 and transitioned into a high-intensity reconstruction process. Throughout the disaster, any attempt at processing loss and hurt was delayed or interrupted. For most people, daily life was lived in the tension between denial and acceptance for over seventeen years. The war in Beirut lasted so long that it offered a rare opportunity to observe a socio-cultural vacuum from the inside. In a study of the conditions of everyday life during the war, professor of psychiatry Marie-Therese Khair Badawi, identified the following four aspects as particularly important:11

_Archaic procession_. Art installation by Nadim Karam. From Beirut 1995.

In peacetime, a balcony is symbolic of the open passage between private and public space.

In war the opening is shut. The view becomes a sniper position. From Beirut 1995.

1) Life outside space-time. When disaster strikes, it dissolves the daily routines tied to home, school, work, and leisure. Even night and day grow increasingly indistinguishable. This loss of external, collective points of reference, and the pattern of habits connecting them, cause a spatio-temporal disorientation. For people in Beirut, meals became the only fixed points keeping time. Consequently, meals became enormously important, and food became an important fulcrum for social life.
2) Life outside the law. Part of the nature of civil war is its suspension or abolition of collective judicial systems. A code of law is only meaningful to the degree that there is a social consensus to grant it meaning, and it can only be effectual to the degree society collectively agrees to observe and uphold it.

Badawi demonstrates that in the absence of collective control over judicial systems, and with it the control of the darker instincts of the subject, society regresses to a pre-civilized state. Widespread looting is a typical response to disaster. Outside the law, might makes right.

3) Life outside progress. A comparatively modern society is entirely reliant on access to clean water, a regular energy supply, operative systems of communication and transportation, and so on. When this infrastructure is destroyed, the basis for hygiene, food supply, healthcare, and social networks also falls away.

In Beirut the slow breakdown disintegration of infrastructure entailed an extreme fragmentation and privatisation of all public services s. Towards the end of the war, virtually every individual building had established its own reservoir or well. The fear of losing access to life’s most basic essentials spurred people to disconnect themselves from wider society as much as possible. In a confusing, unpredictable, and threatening Umwelt, everything and everyone outside the self, or one’s own personal control, represents a potential threat.

4) Life outside life. A precondition for living a life is the capacity to live today as a continuation of the near past, and that tomorrow can be counted upon. When one’s life is under constant threat, one develops a pathological relationship to time. Every need, every wish, every intention, is directed to the immediate present.

Professor Khair Badawi concludes that a life outside of space, time, and law is exile from life. This state of existence is one aspect of the socio-cultural vacuum that arises in the absence of a readable and adequate architectural Umwelt.

"When disaster strikes, it dissolves the daily routines tied to home, school, work, and leisure. … For people in Beirut, meals became the only fixed points keeping time."

Wound and Opportunity

It is this condition of vacuum which enables collateral damage, and which must also be the source of reorientation, acceptance, and new possibilities.

In Beirut, as in any process of reconstruction, there was a need for infrastructure and reconstruction, a need that had to be met no matter what the collateral costs. A great deal of this work was initiated and completed at an accelerated pace, without regard for approval or acceptance. However, in parallel with the ongoing planning, wrecking, and digging, independent architects and artists worked intensively to map, observe, represent, oppose, and criticise the process. A powerful critique and an artistic and theoretical processing of loss, denial, and acceptance developed at the margins of the official reconstruction.

New reflections on alternative scenarios for the future were produced, reflections that illuminated, disputed, or otherwise put the heavy-handed, hegemonic official reconstruction into perspective.

Vacuum. From a workshop about the Beirut reconstruction, collaboration between the American University of Beirut and the Aarhus School of Architecture. From Beirut 1995. _Photo: OM._

Art and Culture as Necessity

Socio-cultural vacuums give rise to pockets of highly unstable meaning. This instability in turn unleashes a “race for meaning”, a race for control of the formation of socio-cultural meaning, or in semiotic terms, control of the semiosphere.12

Regardless of whether the cause is war, natural disaster, or economic globalisation, the examples from Beirut may illustrate approaches to the re-foundation of the interaction between subject and Umwelt.

An analysis of form and meaning in Beirut demonstrates how rapid change necessarily collapses symbolic meaning (such as a code of law), while also showing how such a collapse is followed by collapses of both meaning and form in the built environment: the meaning of a given building shifts from a home to a barricade or a bomb shelter, while its form shifts as it is gradually shot to pieces. This deformation creates monstrous surroundings, surroundings where all conventional symbolic content is displaced by sheer iconicity – in a Peircean sense. At the same time, these catastrophic, monstrous surroundings have a strange aesthetic force, the force of the iconic, which in turn furnishes art with its raw materials.13

Here we could easily fall prey to the conclusion that catastrophic change, instability of meaning, reconstruction and unintended harm pertain strictly to natural disasters and war. Change, however, is a constant feature everywhere, and increasingly it happens at the accelerated rate associated with disaster. Naomi Klein, in her book The Shock Doctrine, argues that lessons learned from disaster capitalism have become part and parcel of business strategy, that catastrophic processes of change are intentionally initiated, or simply instrumentalised when they arise, in order to accumulate economic or political capital from shock and instability.14 Who would have expected a neoconservative US government to practically nationalise the county’s largest banks? What made it possible to give forty billion dollars of taxpayers’ money to Citigroup? If this seems far from home, it is worth remembering that something very similar has happened in Norway. The forceful demonstrations against the Icelandic government that took place in Reykjavik after the three biggest banks in Iceland collapsed in 2008, would have been unimaginable just a few years earlier.

The ramifications of these changes have yet to make themselves fully felt, but their first and most powerful effects are on the building trades. Both economic globalisation and the industry’s regulations have enormous consequences for how urban development and planning processes happen, as well as who is assigned to manage them. The process surrounding the development of Bjørvika, Tjuvholmen, and Filipstad in Oslo have been heavily influenced by market forces, using public (state, municipal, and port authority) capital to run a project-based planning process. Deregulated public capital has given market forces such a potent capacity for implementation that public planning seems outmoded. These changes have happened so quickly that state and municipal authorities were unable to recognise them before the consequences had already begun to take shape. Habit and convention are an integral part of people’s capacity to function in their Umwelt. Habit and convention are also slow to change, which is a problem when the situation calls for quick thinking and action.

To give new meaning to a socio-cultural vacuum necessitates it is necessary to an acceptance of loss and pain, and to provide a capacity to give the emergent phenomena new forms and narratives. One must develop new chronotopes, to borrow Bakhtin’s term.15 This is precisely what art does: not only can it simulate a civilised life, it can also override the experience of “life outside progress” and generate new forms of civilisation. Neither more nor less.


Badawi, M.-T. Khair. (1995. April 15th) Guerre et survie: le contrecoup différentiel sur l’équilibre psychologique des hommes et des femmes. L’Orient Le Jour. Beyrouth
Bakhtin, M. M. (1981/2002). The Dialogical Imagination. University of Texas Press. Austin.
Bush, W. (2005. May 17th). Supporting Emerging Democracies. Retrieved from the website of U. S. Department of State: http://www.state.gov/s/crs/rls/rm/46818.htm
Dieudonné, P. (éd.) (1993). Villes reconstruites, du dessin au destin. L’Harmattan. Paris
Klein, N. (2005. May 2nd). The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. The Nation. Retrieved from http://www.thenation.com/doc.mhtml?i=20050502&s=klein
Lefebvre, H. (1974/1991). The Production of Space. Blackwell. Oxford.
Lotman, Y. M. (1990/2000) Universe of the Mind: A Semiotic Theory of Culture. Indiana University Press. Bloomington and Indianapolis.
Møystad, O. (2005) Urbain par implication: commentaires sur la globalisation et l’urbanisme au 20e siècle. In I. Marcos & M. Constantini (eds.), Dynamiques de la ville – essays de sémiotique de l’éspace. Paris: L’Harmattan
Møystad, O. (1998). Morphogenesis of the Beirut Green-Line: Theoretical approaches between Architecture and Geography. Cahiers de Géographie de Quebec, vol. 42, p.p. 421-435. Also available on http://almashriq.hiof.no/lebanon/900/910/919/beirut/greenline
Møystad, O. (1996). Building Culture, Nordic Journal of Architectural Research, vol. 9(2),pp. 35-50
Skotte, H. (2004). Tents in Concrete. PhD Thesis, Norwegian University of Science and Technology. Trondheim.

  1. The zoofysiologist Jacob von Uexküll (1864-1944) introduced the concept Umwelt in his Bedeutungslehre from 1940. In Uexküll’s biosemiotic theory, Umwelt denotes the subjective environment specific to every species, or the environment that every species creates around itself as an appropriation of its biological niche. Umwelt is adopted here to signify our cultural and architectural environment. Cfr. Møystad 2005b 

  2. Lefebvre refers to this level of signification as ‘Representational spaces’, cfr. Lefebvre 1991, p. 50 ff. 

  3. Dieudonné, 1993 

  4. Møystad, 2005b 

  5. Møystad, 1996 

  6. Skotte, 2004 

  7. Lebanese Constitution: Law No 91-117 of 7th December 1991 

  8. Klein, 2005 

  9. ibid. 

  10. ibid. 

  11. Badawi, 1995 

  12. Lotman, 2000, pp. 123-214 

  13. This relationship between disaster, iconicity and art may have been the reason why Karlheinz Stockhausen referred to the 9/11 attack as an ultimate work of art. The event certainly produced a monstrous environment on lower Manhattan, but there is a basic difference between iconicity and art. The fog of war has been the source quite a few works of art, but it has never been art in and of itself. See Møystad, 1998. 

  14. Giorgio Agamben analyses a similar practice of exploiting shock to establish a state of exception, which enables a suspension of normal political and economic regulation. See The State of Exception, University of Chicago Press, Chigao and London, 2005 

  15. Bakhtin, 2002 


English translation by Vincent Pisters Møystad.