Architectstasy.
Rana Plaza, collapsed

How Buildings Collapse

In 1989, architectural critic Herbert Muschamp wrote an essay for the New York Times, “How Buildings Remember”, that was in part the first review of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.  In it, he discussed Modernism, transparency, the uneasy intimate relationship between art and politics, wondered aloud how much a museum should be responsible – or even can be responsible – for in terms of absolution, the Holocaust Museum type, and ended on an unsettling parallel between old and new propaganda and the timeless persistence of denial.  He describes carefully, almost tenderly, James Freed’s formal, spatial, and material answers to the question, “How does a building represent a catastrophe?”

But sometimes, the building IS the catastrophe.

Bangladesh is, after China, the world’s second largest exporter of textiles (including ready-made garments, or RMGs).  The industry accounts for over 45% of the country’s employment, and the furious competition to deliver orders faster and cheaper is an unrelenting pressure on everyone in it.  This is the part of the world where Westerners talk with appropriate amounts of respectful guilt and deferential wonderment about workers “living on a dollar a day” (the actual minimum wage for Bangladeshi garment factory workers is $37/month, which given their work conditions averages out to somewhat less than that), and where factory owners will do literally anything to keep their competitive edge.

This explains why, in 2006 Sohel Rana bought a pond, bulldozed it, got a permit to build a 5-story commercial building then proceeded to build an 8-story industrial building, landed 5 different garment factory companies as tenants, declared on 23 April 2012 that the cracks that had suddenly appeared in the walls were a “drywall problem” despite a structural engineer declaring the building unoccupiable, heartily encouraged the factory owners when they threatened reluctant workers with their jobs if they didn’t come in to work, and on 24 April had the biggest non-earthquake-related building collapse in Bangladesh’s history on his hands.

Almost two thousand people were wounded.  Over eleven hundred died.  There’s a photo series dedicated specifically to the amputees of Rana Plaza.  Someone did a live art performance highlighting the true ‘victims of the fashion industry’.  The political and cultural outcry was international, and overwhelming.  Companies like Gap, Wal-Mart, and Bennetton were being screamed at as murderers by passionate protesters.

And yet – who was the appropriate respondent, and how?  In a legal action unprecedented in that country, Sohel Rana and 41 others were charged with murder.  Even the mayor.  Even the structural engineer who reported the building unsafe in the first place.  Even his mom.  And yet justice is for the living; the process of prosecution exists really to make us feel better that something has been done.  It does nothing for the dead.  It does nothing to give meaning to their deaths.

But here’s what has happened.

Of Bangladesh’s 5,000 garment factories, almost a third have been officially inspected in the last two years, and the rest will be done before 2020, and every factory will be on a standard schedule of inspection from now on.  Building improvement of Bangladeshi garment factories were once cited as ‘prohibitively expensive’ at $3 billion – now no one is saying it’s too expensive, only working on funding solutions from a multitude of sources, from governments on down to increasing the price tag.  Clothing designers and retailers across the world are working harder than ever to be responsible about every aspect of their supply chains, including the working conditions of the human beings that make the product.  (For some perspective on what goes into the manufacture and production of the clothing you wear every day, check out MacLean’s fun but sobering infographic, “What does that $14 shirt really cost?”)

Rana Plaza was institutionalized criminal negligence rather than the orderly conducting of mass murder, but it was still a massacre.  The Dhaka police have torn down a number of monuments survivors have tried to erect.  To this day there is no monument beyond the rubble and tattered garments still left strewn on the scene.  But perhaps there is another way for buildings to remember.

Perhaps, instead of a single Holocaust Museum-style monument on the site, consecrating the survivors’ experiences but not much else, perhaps it is a fitting legacy that the monument will instead be the radical improvement of thousands of buildings, potentially saving the lives of millions of people.  It’s an inside-out monument, in a way; there’s no single building, no single destination, and the architectural results are happening before people die, not after.  Herbert Muschamp’s words from decades ago ring with pure truth right now: “This moment in our history offers us no greater opportunity in architecture than a building that bears witness…to the general themes of inhumanity, of recognizing it, of acting upon that recognition (emphasis mine).”

When Rana Plaza collapsed, it also collapsed a lot of competing agendas and disparate value systems into one single focus: Never Again.  In the end, that’s exactly the purpose monuments are supposed to serve.

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