After the deluge: Smart designs offer relief for disaster victims
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After the deluge: Smart designs offer relief for disaster victims

A new exhibit at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art shows off creative solutions to earthquakes and tsunamis, floods and tornados

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

Putting together Better Shelter, the Ikea-funded temporary shelters used in disaster areas (Courtesy Tel Aviv Museum of Art)
Putting together Better Shelter, the Ikea-funded temporary shelters used in disaster areas (Courtesy Tel Aviv Museum of Art)

Generally associated with death and destruction, natural disasters don’t usually engender thoughts about design.

Yet a new exhibit at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art offers an unusual focus on the creative entrepreneurship and industrial design used in the aftermath of a disaster, when people desperately require shelter, medical care and relief of all sorts.

Called “3.5 Square Meters: Constructive Responses to Natural Disasters,” the exhibit curated by Maya Vinitsky at the museum’s Amir wing opened March 24 and closes September 9.

“It’s an unusual exhibit,” said Suzanne Landau, director of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, before a tour of the exhibit. “It answers the question of whether museums are involved in discussions of politics, social issues and economy; here’s the answer.”

Vinitsky, a member of the museum’s design and architecture department, began working on “3.5 Square Meters” two years ago, culminating in the display of 26 different projects engaged in natural disaster relief, from sharing knowledge and using social technology to storytelling and DIY approaches.

Using Keter plastic shedding technology covered with mud to create temporary housing (Courtesy Tel Aviv Museum of Art)
Using Keter plastic shedding technology covered with mud to create temporary housing (Courtesy Tel Aviv Museum of Art)

There are featured projects from small and large organizations, ranging from Airbnb’s work in emergency hosting and Ikea’s pre-fab houses for refugees to an MIT-made earthquake app, and pre-fab plastic walls created by Israel’s Keter plastics company.

The projects include designs from architects, engineers, industrial designers, entrepreneurs and artists; even podcast editors and documentary filmmakers

Each project is explained with short video clips, oversized photographs, and displays of the tools and solutions created for the different projects.

The gallery, situated on the main floor of the Amir building, has the feel of a hastily organized room, designed by a local studio using discarded wood and panels from other exhibits to offer the feel of a temporary, makeshift space that uses what’s available, rather than the usual, smooth, exacting lines of a museum exhibition space, said Vinitsky.

The MIT-designed bench that can be used in urban settings as place to plug in when lights are out (Courtesy Tel Aviv Museum of Art)
The MIT-designed bench that can be used in urban settings as place to plug in when lights are out (Courtesy Tel Aviv Museum of Art)

That’s also the idea behind many of the projects, whether started by individuals or non-profits, which aim to find easy, practical methods for getting people and communities back on their feet, in the places where they live, whenever possible.

“It’s not an exhibit about design, but about acts and tools to handle extreme situations,” said Vinitsky.

Many of the examples revolved around rebuilding homes, hopefully according to the traditions and methods used in that place, whether building with mud bricks or the woods native to the location, even if they’ve been mostly destroyed by the recent disaster.

Keter Plastic, the Israeli company known for their DIY backyard sheds and plastic storage boxes, makes plastic wall panels that are very light and can be sent to the field, and then plastered with local mud and other materials to create comfortable, temporary homes. Another organization worked in Nepal to create earth bricks made out of local sand and soil.

A group of Japanese architects gathered together to create Home-for-All, a space for neighbors to gather after homes have been destroyed (Courtesy Tel Aviv Museum of Art)
A group of Japanese architects gathered together to create Home-for-All, a space for neighbors to gather after homes have been destroyed (Courtesy Tel Aviv Museum of Art)

In Japan, following the 2010 tsunami and earthquake, a team of local architects built Home-for-All, a structure for neighbors to reconnect and drink a cup of tea together, in a carefully designed building made of local wood that creates a safe space amid the tumult of the disaster. There are now 15 of the Home-for-All structures in Iwate Prefecture, where the disasters took place.

University students play a steady role in finding practical solutions to the ongoing wave of natural disasters. A Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design student created a prototype of an earthquake desk that can withstand the crushing weight of rubble and stone, and protect two full-size adults under its smart design.

MIT students created a smart bench, a sidewalk seating area and space that allows people to sit, get information and charge phones, while Berkeley students created MyShake, a free Android app that can recognize earthquake shakes using the sensors present in every smartphone. The US Geological Survey uses tweets sent in the immediate aftermath of an earthquake as a method of gathering real information about the location and severity of an earthquake.

“They’re all mixed together in the exhibit,” said Vinitsky. “There’s nothing black-and-white here, it’s all these issues that can present themselves to people under extreme examples in the field.”

What has happened, found Vinitsky, is a change in the way of thinking, as people and organizations don’t wait for governments to help, but come up with their own solutions.

There’s FieldReady, an American non-profit that uses 3D printers to make humanitarian supplies in the field, such as medical supplies, search and rescue tools and devices to clean water.

Even the Burning Man Project, the annual gathering that brings thousands to the Nevada desert for a massive artistic experiment, has its non-profit project, Burners without Borders. As does Airbnb Global, the home-rental website that helps host displaced people, listing homes and hosts in case of a natural disaster, and first stepped in after the Louisiana floods.

The Swedish social entrepreneurs Better Shelter teamed up with the IKEA Foundation to build DIY structures, and have now built 16,000 shelters, used mostly in Iraq, but also in Africa and Nepal, and which get used as homes, clinics and child-friendly safe spaces.

There are more elementary structures, such as American architect Michael Reynolds’ earthships, that use whatever materials are available to build individual residences.

Visitors can sit and listen to the Israel Story podcast episode about the Nepal earthquake, or watch a portion of “After the Storm”, an interactive documentary by Andrew Beck Grace, about the aftermath of a tornado in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

Finally, visitors can exit the gallery from a temporary ramp constructed and intended to offer a sense of how victims feel after a disaster has taken hold of their lives and homes, turning things into makeshift, temporary places.

“It’s like leaving through a window,” said Vinitsky. “We all need to feel how things can change a moment’s notice.”

“3.5 Square Meters: Constructive Responses to Natural Disasters,” March 25-September 9, Herta and Paul Amir Building, Tel Aviv Museum of Art.

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