Hill talks natural disasters, infrastructure

Last night, as a snow storm headed toward the campus, dozens of students and faculty members collected to listen to a talk on floods, natural disasters, and protective architecture.

Kristina Hill, the chair of landscape architecture at the University of Virginia, wove together mythical fairy tales and modern technological innovations in a lecture at the School of Architecture on contemporary problems and infrastructure last night. The lecture, which was part of the Timothy Egan Lenahan Memorial Lecture series, was attended by roughly 120 audience members who crowded the aisles of Hastings Hall in the School of Architecture’s Rudolph Hall.

Kristina Hill, from the University of Virginia, spoke about natural disasters Monday.
Victor Kang
Kristina Hill, from the University of Virginia, spoke about natural disasters Monday.

The lecture, named “Beauty and the Beast: Design and Infrastructure,” focused on how American cities are increasingly vulnerable to natural disasters, as their outdated infrastructural designs are failing in the face of new challenges brought on by climate change. Hill termed natural calamities — such as Hurricane Katrina — the “beasts,” inversely calling human innovation in infrastructure “beauty,” which protects cities from the ravaging destruction of beasts. The lecture also focused on specific architectural designs that protect cities against natural disasters — innovations including movable flood barriers and advanced dykes.

Hill first began by describing the “beasts” as forces that are beyond human control.

“What do you do when you encounter something beyond comprehension?” she asked, referring to the overwhelming quality of natural disasters and the sense of helplessness they incite. “There are forces which do not give a rip about humans.”

Hill continued the lecture by explaining three different dyke constructions, comparing the designs of models used in the cities of London, Rotterdam and Hamburg. Since the cities are all below sea level, Hill noted that they have had to develop strong defenses that today represent the most advanced dykes in the world. In these cities, dykes have been built higher and thicker. Some dykes have also been equipped with internal pumps, which work to flush out flood water.

Battling natural disasters has also resulted in unique regional inventions that sometimes diverge strongly from typical barriers: such as dykes and sand barriers.

Instead of outrightly combating flood water, German architects built dykes inside Hamburg and left a significant portion as a “floating public space,” Hill said. Buildings are built high on pylons, which can bear flood surges as high as 6.45 meters. The buildings “became an icon of Germans’ adaptability and genius,” Hill added.

Hill also criticized the lack of interest in America to develop climate-proof cities. She blamed the political landscape of the United States, which she noted discourages policies aimed at the issue of global warming. She said the “political price is too high” in the United States for politicians to directly acknowledge and tackle climate change.

Two audience members said they were pleased with the talk, noting that it was both engaging and informative.

“She certainly managed to sustain interest in what was a highly technical discussion,” Ellen Song ’13, an audience member, said.

“[The lecture] touches on many contemporary issues of infrastructure in the discourse of architecture,” said Amy DeDonato ARC ’12, who was also in attendance at the talk. “I appreciate her passion for developing her point so eloquently.”

Hill has also been involved with public design projects throughout America, in cities including Seattle, Washington D.C. and Dallas.

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