Dummy’s guide to the role of earthquakes in creative trends

by Andy Kozlov

Ever thought what happens to human creativity after a megathrust earthquake?

Take the second most powerful one ever measured by seismograph — the 1964 Alaskan earthquake — lasting nearly four minutes, it was the most powerful recorded earthquake in US and North American history, at a magnitude of 9.2, and caused above 100 human deaths.

Or the 1556 Shaanxi earthquake in what is now the People’s Republic of China: the deadliest earthquake on record, killing approximately 830,000 people. The Portuguese Dominican friar Gaspar da Cruz, who visited the Chinese port city of Guangzhou later in 1556, heard about the earthquake.

What reaction did the news stir up in this man, you think? He viewed the earthquake as a possible punishment for people’s sins, and the Great Comet of 1556 as, possibly, the sign of this calamity (as well as perhaps the sign of the birth of the Antichrist).

Paoay Church in Ilocos Norte Province (the location of the first power-generating windmill farm in Southeast Asia) in the Philippines was designated as an UNESCO World Heritage Site. Paoay church is prime example of Earthquake Baroque architecture. Aside from Baroque, the church facade also exudes Javanese architecture reminiscent of Borobudur of Java. (Photo courtesy of Heritage Conservation Society in the Philippines)

There is a behaviour pattern here. Some two centuries later, Gaspar da Cruz’s native land experienced an earthquake that almost totally destroyed Lisbon and adjoining areas — the Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755. The earthquake had struck on  All Saints’ Day and had destroyed almost every important church in the city, causing anxiety and confusion amongst the devout Catholic citizens.

Once again, theologians would speculate on the religious cause and message, seeing the earthquake as a manifestation of divine judgement. The Alfama, Lisbon’s red-light district, suffered only minor damage.

Can you imagine  what consequences this unexpected earth shaking had on the course of the growingly secularizing human thought of the colonial thinkers? The 1755 earthquake has sometimes been compared to the Holocaust as a catastrophe that transformed European culture and philosophy. As Theodor Adorno wrote, “[t]he earthquake of Lisbon sufficed to cure Voltaire of the theodicy of Leibniz.” Voltaire’s Candide attacks the notion that all is for the best in this, “the best of all possible worlds”, a world closely supervised by a benevolent deity.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau was also influenced by the devastation following the earthquake, whose severity he believed was due to too many people living within the close quarters of the city. Rousseau used the earthquake as an argument against cities as part of his desire for a more naturalistic way of life.

The Great Lisbon Earthquake  accentuated political tensions in the Kingdom of Portugal and profoundly disrupted the country’s colonial ambitions.

The young Immanuel Kant, fascinated with the earthquake, collected all the information available to him in news pamphlets, and used it to formulate a theory of the causes of earthquakes. This Age of Enlightenment disaster response/humanitarian emergency opus, according to Walter Benjamin,  “probably represents the beginnings of scientific geography in Germany. And certainly the beginnings of seismology.”

Now Earthquake Baroque, anyone? Precisely! It is a style of Baroque architecture found in places like the Philippines and Guatemala, which suffered destructive earthquakes during the 17th and 18th centuries.  Lisbon’s Pombaline architecture (following the 1755 earthquake) and Sicilian Baroque in Sicily (following the 1693 earthquake) are examples of the same style.

Instituto dos Arquivos Nacionais in Lisbon

In our days, earthquakes are likely to influence such creative processes as film or TV shoots. An earthquake that occurred on January 17, 1994  in Reseda, a neighborhood in Los Angeles, spoilt the day for the Star Trek crew. The season five episode of Seinfeld entitled “The Pie” was due to begin shooting on the day of the earthquake before stage sets were damaged. NBC’s The Tonight Show, hosted by Jay Leno, took place in the NBC Studios in Burbank (which is close to the epicenter of the quake) and Leno asked the crew to stop what they were doing.

All of the earthquake sequences in the Wes Craven film New Nightmare were filmed a month prior to the Northridge quake. The real quake struck only weeks before filming was completed. A team was sent out to film footage of the areas damaged by the Northridge earthquake. The cast and crew had initially thought that the scenes that were filmed before the real quake were a bit overdone, but when viewed after the real-life quake hit, they were horrified by the realism of it.

Read profiles of photographers that documented the 1994 Northridge earthquake:

Brant Ward who has covered stories in Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Somalia.

Steve Hymon, the best transportation reporter in Los Angeles according to Curbed LA,  Los Angeles neighborhoods and real estate blog. Hymon was part of the Los Angeles Times reporting team that won a public service Pulitzer Prize in 2005 for stories on King-Drew medical center.

Andrea Booher whose assignments have taken her to East Africa, Latin America, Micronesia, India, Haiti and throughout the United States. In the last twenty years, Booher has worked as a photographer documenting disasters for the US Federal Emergency Management Agency.

See related material:

The most-used creativity test in the world

Steppes in figures #1: Creative industries

Biosphere Connections by Star Alliance+UNESCO+National Geographic

Odd hotels of the developing world

A Zimbabwean Tale of Two African Architects (with vintage images of Bulawayo and Harare)

Harare theatre scene for dummies.. by a dummy

What the world’s only active Somali archaeologist has in common with the Iraqi-British winner of the Pritzker Architecture Prize

UNESCO partners with NHK to produce World Heritage videos

Kramatorsk photographer gets a gold medal in an All-Ukrainian competition between almost 1,000 photo artists. Gets exhibited at Tashkent Biennale in Uzbekistan

Know more stories of how creative projects were interrupted (or inspired) by the shaking, comment below ↓


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