There's a short article in this week's New York magazine about the set design for the movie I Am Legend, which is based in Manhattan in 2012, three years after a virus kills off the human race (except, of course, for the indestructible Will Smith.)
Director Francis Lawrence told the magazine, "Most apocalyptic movies are very dark, with burnt-out cities. The truth is that if people left, nature would start reclaiming the city pretty quickly."
So they created a digital jungle, filled with wild animal and vast expanses of overgrown fields. I wonder if Lawrence consulted Alan Weisman, author of The World Without Us. Weisman's book explores just this concept: The human race is gone, Poof, so now what?
Weisman spent several years touring the world and posing this question to scientists, environmentalists, and architects. I talked with him this summer:
I realized if you theoretically wipe humans out, you can see much more clearly what else is here. Just think of it. Right after we’re gone, any engine that’s left running is going to run out of gas pretty quickly. Suddenly you won’t hear all that noise.
I needed an urban area, so New York was the obvious candidate, the most recognizable urban area on earth, to see how a city would break down. I was astounded when I talked to people. I sort of felt like an idiot. Oh yeah, of course there used to be ground water here. Of course there used to be rivers, there were hills. Of course the subways are below the water table.
If there are no people around there would be no electricity for the subway pumps. If the subways flood, then that would start to erode the steel columns. I had never thought about how a bridge functions, and the maintenance it takes to keep those expansion joints open so a bridge can expand and contract. And if they fill with debris and they fill with rust, the bridges are goners. Very quickly.
In his book, Weisman writes about the shoddy construction industry and the second-rate architectural design that's plaguing cities around the world. He wrote about new retirement homes in Cypress where the concrete used was subpar (think of the Big Dig in Boston):
You see advertisements for townhouses that they’re building everywhere in these seaside villas that offer a ten-year guarantee of construction. And 40 miles up the road, I’m seeing stuff that was built in Biblical times that’s still standing. Figure it out. When we make stuff that is the stuff of the earth itself, it’s chemically very stable. The Incas, they didn’t even bother with mortar oftentimes. They just stuck these rocks together so perfectly and they used gravity to hold it together. It’s always inspiring to go to Europe and see some of these great old buildings that were built to last. And it’s always kind of dismaying to go into strip malls and see these crappy buildings that are falling apart really fast.
You know, it depends on our perspective. Maybe the fact that this stuff washes away is for the better? I mean, those townhouses in Cypress were just so damn ugly I hope that they disappear quickly.