Several days ago, the first photographs showing the damage from Hurricane Katrina were published here in the American press. They were oddly disquieting, but mostly just enigmatic: one photo in particular showed the partially submerged houses of a residential city block, their red roofs appearing like floating trapezoids in a grey, murky sea. The image itself resembled a kind of environmental art piece a Robert Smithson installation, for instance, or some sort of Christo and Jeanne Claude experiment. Its beauty lay in its otherworldliness, its tone of kooky mystery. As a photo it was haunting. As news, even more so.
It is the start of Labor Day weekend here in the United States the last days of summer when time seems to stand still. There's the anticipation of the new school year, what the French call la rentrée: quite literally, the re-entrance into the kind of routine that summer so expertly ignores. (It was precisely this time of year when the events of September 11 occurred, jolting us irrevocably out of our late summer complacency.) And like it was then, there remains something deeply inexpressible about the tension between this perfect, hopeful time of year and the events of the past week.
To write about design in the wake of such tragedy seems to trivialize it and yet, it is precisely in the acknowledgment of design that some kind of reality is once again established. There will be, no doubt, issues raised by this hurricane and its questionable aftermath issues relating to disaster relief and even municipal reconstruction that require a kind of vital, critical and engaged visual dialogue. But for now, we wait. We read. We empathize, extend ourselves, reach out in other ways. And we reflect, in these last, fragile days of summer, on the painful irony of a world in which the material evidence of our man-made environment can be pulled from under us in an instant, by a cascading torrent of wind and rain. Design is, can be, should be about so much more than making things that can vanish in a storm.