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Magnitude 7 quake rattles Alaska’s architects

  • Author: Rebecca Shaffer
    | Opinion
  • Updated: December 4, 2018
  • Published December 4, 2018

Crumbled concrete cinder blocks came to rest near hallway lockers at Houston Middle School on Monday, Dec. 3. 2018. (Bill Roth / ADN)

Two hours had passed before I stopped running, collapsed on an upturned bucket in my garage, and found myself staring at my phone, which still worked, for information about the earthquake. Ninety minutes previous, my office in an engineering department on Fifth Avenue in Anchorage had gone pitch black. The darkness magnified the sound of steel girders grinding against the force of the shock waves. I stood or sat (I don’t remember) at my cubicle desk, frozen, and tossed when the lights came back on. My colleague dove into an interior office and under a desk. A fire alarm began to shrill. My colleague yelled, “We have to go to the stairs.” We ran for the central stair tower. We were four stories up. I remember seeing a compact fluorescent light bulb fall from a ceiling fixture and break on the carpet tiles. The pulverized edges of suspended acoustical ceiling rained dust. I ran out of the building and I ran home, less than a mile away -- in time to stop a geyser from a burst seal on my boiler, replace it and get the heat back on.

Architects design for getting people out of buildings -- egress – which in reality is terrifying at the office or school, and much less scary in residential settings, if videos from Anchorage residents are any indication. Home security recordings showed families in their kitchens or living rooms when the jolt hit, reacting with surprise and instant action. A mother opened a basement door, yelled for her daughter, returned to the kitchen as pendant lights swayed and walls shook, and closed the refrigerator door before running outside. A father, in one video, leaped up from a kitchen chair to grab a child by the hand and run towards the front door, then turned to grab his second child, a baby still strapped into a high chair at the table. The scenes of homes were urgent, but oddly rational. Even the sound of dishes breaking seemed familiar.

Why is egressing from our best-designed buildings during disasters so scary? I formed a hypothesis. Commercial-scale design makes it easy for people to climb 40-plus feet off of the earth in a steel or wood frame, then makes occupants forget they are there. Disaster movies from the era of the International Style of building in the 1970s picked up on an unease with the commercial scale. Movies such as “Skyscraper” (1974), “Airport" (1975) and “The Towering Inferno” (1974) cast Charlton Heston and Paul Newman, the famous leading men of the day, as heroes saving (some) citizens from commercial-scale terror. The movies showed people reacting hysterically to situations among strangers in public buildings -- never in their own homes.

Architecture celebrates form and light, comfort and delight -- and function. But the dark side in architecture, codified in building code upgrades, is an architecture of panic and worst-case design loads that strip away the protections that buildings are designed to provide: Resist gravity, provide warmth, light and space for normal life to occur. Some buildings play with this fear – U.S. Bank Tower’s Sky Slide, a glass sliding board 70 floors above the ground, where terror, chosen by informed consent, is entertainment. Or Anchorage’s own mirrored-glass museum.

More than a day after the Anchorage earthquake, a high school student posted a video that she recorded in the corridor of her school when the earthquake struck. Tons of steel could be heard grinding, building materials crushing, and darkness followed by egress-inducing alarms and strobes. Students and teachers yelled obscenities, shrieked – expressing the terror that they picked up from their environment, and from each other. As architects, that terror is a byproduct of our work. I’m reminded of Temple Grandin’s work with veterinary enclosures and reducing panic. Current trends towards building automation are heightening fears. This year, with the release of “Skyscraper” starring Dwayne Johnson, disaster movies about buildings are back. After Friday’s shake-up, I look forward to discussing with other architects ideas for reducing panic.

Rebecca Shaffer, AIA, is an architect in Anchorage.

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