Post-Apocalyptic Design

Zombies are everywhere these days.  From the Walking Dead to Zone One to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the undead have infected our popular culture like a flesh-eating virus.  In a recent interview on Studio 360, Colson Whitehead, author of Zone One, explained our fascination with zombies as having to do with an embedded fear in the human psyche that our friends, family, and neighbors really are secretly out to get us, and, as zombies, that fear comes out into the open.  Much of zombie fiction, from Zone One to Shaun of the Dead, include scenes where the protagonist has to kill their parents, which seems, to me, to be a rather ham-handed homage to Dr. Freud.  

My own fascination with zombies, and, by extension, the post-apocalyptic genre in general, has been about the design of the world after the collapse.  Many of these films and books, are, by nature, on the corny side, but the visual imagination involved is always great.  I started in elementary school with the classic of classics, Mad Max, the beginning of a trilogy starring Mel Gibson as a road warrior in Australia.  Filmed in 1979 in brilliant wide-screen, it pioneers what would become a familiar dystopian story line -- the collapse of the oil economy.  The main design innovations in that first movie are Max's sawed-off pistol shotgun (something that would also become a familiar trope in future post-apocalyptic movies) and his Ford Falcon hardtop Pursuit Special.  It had a huge engine, backed up with massive dual fuel tanks in place of a trunk and back seat.  Weapons were hidden everywhere.  In various sequels, more attention is paid to the urban design, following Max to various cities inhabited by small groups of scavengers safe-guarding precious supplies of gas and water.  

The Interceptor.


Shop Improvements

Every shop is a work in progress.  There is a constant flow of background tasks, dedicated to keeping the place clean and organized.  Dust is a hazard to breathe, and can cause fires.  Clamps, glue, drill bits, blades, hand tools -- things end up all over the place at the end of the day, making it hard to find what you need the next morning.  These improvements are a key part of the life of a workshop, as they enable one to make things faster, cleaner, and ultimately, better.  

Every shop I've ever worked in has had bursts of self-improvement from time to time.  When I made cabinets, I built some insulated doors to the bench room, to keep in the heat from the pellet stove so the concrete countertops wouldn't freeze at night.  In Alabama, I built a shed for the garden tools.  The last couple of weeks, I've been doing a lot of shop improvements at both ReBuild Foundation and the ReBuilding Exchange.  

At the ReBuild Foundation, I built a four-tier, 5' x 16' x 10' tall lumber rack for all the salvaged treasures they have down there.  It was a scrapful effort, patched together out of old 2" x 4"s, pallets, and bits of plywood.  When a piece wasn't long enough, I scabbed two together.  It felt good to be wielding a nailgun again, shooting something together. 
The lumber racket.  Ladder included, no extra charge.  


The Good Life

I recently began re-reading The Good Life, a book I had bought back in high school and never finished.  Mostly forgotten, I picked it up on a trip home and delved in.  A sort of joint autobiography/handbook by Scott and Helen Nearing, it recounts their means and methods for dropping out of society and going back to the land.  The book is really two books under one cover:  Living the Good Life, published in 1951, and Continuing the Good Life, published in 1979, four years before Scott's death at age 100.

The story begins in New York City, 1930.  The Nearings, were, at that time, 26 (Helen), and 47 (Scott).  The text refers to them, collectively, as "approaching fifty."  (I took that at face value, not realizing their age difference until I did some research online.) The age difference is not explained in the text, but Scott had a wife before Helen, Nellie, and a son, John.   Vague intimations are made about them losing their jobs because of radical politics.  Scott, a professor, was an ardent socialist and radical anti-war advocate, and lost his job due to Communist hysteria and perceived treason due to his opposition to American involvement in World War 1.  Looking to drop out of the dominant consumer-industrial culture of the time (funny, as we complain about that now, in an age of TV, the internet, and unprecedented consumer spending) and fashion a self-sufficient lifestyle for themselves, the Nearings moved to rural Vermont, buying an old farm at the foot of Stratton Mountain.  


On (Design) Failure

As a designer, I like to think I can anticipate everything.  Most architects and builders do.  It is, after all, our job to figure everything out before mortar hits brick, or rain hits roof, or ass hits seat.  However, design is not that simple.  Prototypes, drafts, and painstaking iterative improvement are an integral part of any good design process.  

My process, in particular, is based on prototyping, debugging, and then, hopefully, forward progress.  That said, sometimes things just go sideways on a fella.  Recently, I reported on a productive weekend in the shop, working on some new chairs made from an old feta cheese barrel, designed to address some of the shortcomings of my Scrap Armchairs.  One of the main problems with those chairs, the flat seat and back, would be solved with the nice, ergonomic curve of the barrel staves.  I worked out a new frame, built it, cut mortises to accept the barrel staves, and glued up the whole thing.  

What follows is a photo-illustrated journal of the complete failure of that process.  I thought it might be useful to show how something fails, why it fails, and what lessons to salvage out of the whole mess.  

Chair frames, made from reclaimed old-growth pine (maybe fir, not a wood ID expert).  Simple notched joints, glued and pegged with dowels for additional strength.  


Temporary Urbanism

It seems, warranted or no, that Occupy Wall Street's tenure at Zuccotti Park has come to an end.  While their aims were diffuse, and poorly defined, the protesters did succeed in changing the course of the national conversation about inequality in America.  Some dismissed them as a joke.  Others called them terrorists.  Debate aside, I think they served as a long-overdue counterpoint to John Boehner's job creator meme, which claims that there is an ongoing capital strike by financiers.  This rumor remains pernicious even after being repeatedly factually disemboweled.  

Politics aside, one of the most fascinating aspects of the Occupy movement is their chosen mode of protest -- claiming public space and living on it until demands, whatever they may be, are met.  This occupation strategy has at least one historic precedent in the Bonus Army, which didn't end well for either side.  The idea of a tent city, with its lending library, kitchen, and media center, got me thinking about temporary urbanism.  Tent cities have historically been associated with refugee camps or natural disasters.  Tent cities set up on purpose have usually been the seeds of a new city, built around an economic boom like a gold rush or oil discovery.  Occupy has inhabited a new philosophical space, built around a purposeful impermanence, neither building the foundations of a future community nor reacting to a physical disaster.  Rather, it is responding to a political crisis, and is built around the tenuous bonds of the internet, rooted as firmly in the ether as it is in reality.  

While the New York Occupy movement has been cut off at the knees, it continues on in many other cities, among them Boston, Denver, and L.A.  As winter descends, the inhabitation strategy looks increasingly difficult.  However, some politically motivated designers have been working on solutions to the weather.  Taking the Tiny House idea to a whole new level, these folks have created some small structures that use a combination of insulation, small volume, and heat-reflective surfaces to create spaces fueled only by body heat.  By staying on wheels and within a certain footprint, they avoid any zoning issues because they aren't classified as actual buildings.  

Sage Radachowsky's Occupy Boston shelter.  Image courtesy of RelaxShacks.