The Illusion of Safety

On St Croix the majority of the island is marked by civilization. From the Danish sugar mills that dot the landscape to the modern strip malls and gas stations, it’s rare to find a vista uninterrupted by a red-roofed “west indian style” villa, a swath of manicured lawn, or a dilapidated stretch of pavement, or a ruined plantation.

One area, a rare exception, lies in the north west corner of the island. The steep hills and loose, rocky soil make the terrain treacherous for builders, and the land has laid vacant at least since the mid 1800s when the Danish left behind their sugar plantations, perhaps finding the soil no longer capable for growing cane, or the laborers, newly emancipated, no longer willing to work. Since then, the land has rebounded in a mix of brush and “secondary” forest, and through nothing here is primeval, this area represents, perhaps, the least “spoiled” area on the island.

My father and I hiked through this area today, from the peaks of the hills down to the shore, where rocky outcrops eroded to razor edges threaten to slice flip-flops in two, and where these same formations protect shallow lagoons, the “baths” we swam in before climbing back to our car, where reef fish swim in the relative calm. The hike was gruelling, and in the hours we spent trekking up and down 600 foot hills, and scrambling over giant rock formations, I was struck by the reality of how hazardous this hike could be. While climbing on the rocks above a tumultuous surf, a fall could be fatal. However, without the danger, there would be no thrill.

After the hike, we stopped at a bar in the hills, with bamboo walls and a thatch roof supported on one side by rotting 2x4s and the other by the hurricane-ravaged concrete shell of an earlier, grander, plan. With dirt floors and nothing more than a few concrete blocks to hold the hill at bay, the bar prospered despite a flagrant disregard for building code or proper construction practice. If it weren’t so humid, a spark could take the place down in minutes. Due to these apparent flaws, the space succeeds architecturally in a way that is rare in new construction, but finds ample precedent in the past.

[Moorish castle, somewhere in Portugal]

In Portugal, and throughout Europe, I found the most engaging spaces to be the most dangerous, or at least the least likely to be code-approved in the good ole’ US of A.

[Rem Koolhaas / OMA – Casa de Musica, Porto Portugal]

Whether a Moorish castle with no retro-fitted handrails, or the Casa de Musica with a pedestrian – skateboarder collision course, the inherent danger in certain architectural moments lends a dynamism to the experience that is sorely lacking in the United States.

So, what is the essence of this problem? Is the US legal system so rife with frivolous lawsuits that building codes must comply to ridiculous standards that forsake any possibility of personal responsibility? Is the protection of our populous so important to our policymakers that we must eliminate every possible source of harm? What happened to the America that was wild and exciting, where anyone could strive for their dreams or die trying, where the very real possibility of failure made the win that much richer? How did we become a nation of frightened hermits, isolated in our armored cul-de-sacs and SUVs? What happened to ambition? Where are the foolhardy?

I think the illusion of safety perpetuated by building codes, warning labels, commercial drugs, and the security-obsessed government is killing our national spirit. Many talking heads say that America is best when challenged, and they point to the Western frontier, or the Manhattan Project, or the space program. Recently, these past glories are linked to the War on Terror, which supposedly also exemplifies that unassailable American spirit. However, we live in a state of assured safety. Despite the state of the middle east, the American people have not been asked to make any sacrafices, and though we are a “nation at war” you certainly can’t tell by the home front. Would a “Manhattan”-scale project for sustainable, green power be enough to wean our economy from unstable foreign oil? Perhaps more importantly, who would benefit from such a project?

How did the US Government become coupled to the US Economy? Why is Washington populated by more lawyers than engineers? When did the people lose their role in government, and what steps must be taken to regain it?

Marx undoubtedly misjudged the capacity of human beings to withstand late stage capitalism. Ideally, the revolution would have come and gone, yet we find ourselves past that tipping point, in a political, economic, ecological, and moral resonance chamber: every one of society’s structures in in a positive feedback loop, becoming bigger, faster, and rapidly accellerating in every direction.

(And if it takes a good amount of hyperbole to reverse this trend, so be it.)

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