The Resilience Perspective
The relationship between human beings, the limited resources of the earth, climate change and the eco-systems in which we exist has broadly framed the discourse of sustainable urban environments. The notion of sustainability has undoubtedly influenced the general movement of built environment stakeholders to embrace measures that on the face of it reflect sustainable thinking, though this has not been consistent in regards to urban development. Accordingly, it has been observed that the S word (sustainability) is more and more being superseded by the R word that is resilience. Put simply, whereas sustainability attempts to address issues of social and economic equality in coexistence with a changing environment, resilience differs in that it highlights the need to manage major shocks, some of which will be impossible to predict. Both words have influenced and will continue to impact on urban form in the foreseeable future.
It has been argued that modernism’s influence on the architectural form of technology and the architects apparent need to associate building form with high tech representations of functionality, have neglected the natural environment as a more ecologically relevant typological influence. Though sustainability has recently become more influential in regards to design criteria it is argued that there is still some way to go and there is still the need to better understand the expression of ecology through design. This is a difficult process, as to create a design that is distinctive and also inclusive of the requisite components of ecological viability is not straightforward. As such, it needs to integrate aesthetics with environmental technology and resource conservation. In order for an architectural feature to achieve longevity, as well as being constructed from materials that are durable there should be a desire to preserve the building in the first place and in the opinion of some, should be perceived as beautiful.
Integrating architecture in an ecologically sympathetic manner is not a new phenomenon. The observation of intuitive or vernacular approaches to building in nature has inspired architects from Frank Lloyd Wright to Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier. Frank Lloyd Wright stating to the effect that such buildings fitted into the environment by people who intuitively knew how to, in contrast with intellectual “academic attempts at creating beauty”. Wright believed that the indigenous populations of local and regional environments were more likely to determine authentic characteristics in keeping with qualities of the environment, local culture and the nation. Wright was the leading pioneer of what could be termed organic architecture in that the architecture begins from within and extends outwards, in other words the architecture grows as a consequence of stimulus from the local environment. Wright’s philosophies and approaches to design were ground breaking, but arguably were largely disregarded in the march towards modernism. Debatably, part of the reason that the organic approach was neglected is in part due to the difficulty in copying Wright’s approach without looking like a pale pastiche of the original. The architecture of Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe was more formal, tidier and neatly packaged and consequently more compatible to imitation. The difference between the approaches and philosophies of Wright and modernist architects is probably best summed up by Wright when responding to Le Corbusier’s description of a house as a “machine for living in”. Wright responded, “just like the heart is a suction pump”.
Whereas sustainability attempts to address issues of social and economic equality in coexistence with a changing environment, resilience differs in that it highlights the need to manage major shocks.
The use of technology as an integral feature of the architecture is on the face of it a valuable element in the ecological identification of buildings as a visual and environmentally sympathetic statement of purpose. Technology is regularly viewed as a means of providing solutions to a wide range of issues not least of all reducing the environmental footprint of architecture. Technology is now boldly displayed not just as a stylistic appendage to the architectural form, but in many cases as visual declaration of ‘greenness’. Long before the advent of the S word Buckminster Fuller advocated an integrated approach to sustainable design regarding technology as a means of mitigating the effects of pollution, energy use, food production and fossil fuels. Fuller, like Wright, was also ahead of his time and one of the first modern western thinkers to connect architecture to ecology and the environment. Fuller’s legacy with the possible exception of his invention of the ‘geodesic dome’, was not about technological innovation, but more to do with a non-hierarchical way of thinking, in which all problems are interrelated and need to be confronted collectively. This approach remains an ever-present feature of architectural theory and practice. Technology is now regarded, as more than a necessary bolt on appendage to an existing design, it is integral to the intrinsic value of the architecture. Smart buildings and cities are repeatedly referred to as the way forward, providing antidotes to the many environmental issues coupled with urban development.
Others, such as the architect Thomas Herzog, have advanced the proposition that the architecture of conspicuous technological styling is more about exhibitionism than on what he terms ‘constructional physics”. As such, he regards technology as a response to matters such as solar energy, site restraints, material values and zoning, drawing on the laws of physics and shifting natural conditions as inherent to the development of architectural form. Herzog was an early pioneer of the inclusion of solar panels in buildings. In the 1980’s he was the first architect to include a photovoltaic system in one of his residential buildings. This was followed a few years later by the installation of transparent thermal insulation, geothermal heat pumps and insulating glazing into his buildings. Herzog is probably best known for his ‘wings of glass’ residential projects, which situated the layout of the rooms depending on their heating needs. Consequently, areas needing more heat were situated more centrally or no internal heating at all if situated with south facing outlooks in the case of conservatories. To Herzog, the visual form of the building is not a primary issue, but what is important is its intrinsic properties that are in tune with the environment. In an era when intelligent buildings and cities are arguably de rigueur in current built environment conceptual objectives, Herzog serves as a reminder of the need to be sensitive to the environment and less dependent on gratuitous technology.
Broadly, though sustainable architecture attempts to lessen the environmental impact relating to matters of conservation, comfort and carbon footprints during the life cycle of the building, how the building performs in abnormal conditions is a question of resilience. There is no doubt that energy saving devices and thermally insulating construction materials are environmentally beneficial, but don’t count for much if the building is hit by a freak flooding, typhoon or man made disaster. Since hurricane Sandy hit the east coast of the U.S.A. in 2012 inflicting havoc on tens of thousands of the population, resilient design has become a stock phrase with architects, planners and policy makers. A building designed and built with resilience should take into consideration the points of stress of everyday usage, but also pay attention to possible local environmental conditions; consequently, resilient architecture is locally specific
Resilience is becoming a significant element within design zeitgeist and is reflected in many development projects. The notion that a building should be able to cope with any eventuality is the focus of architects such as Koen Olthuis, arguably best known for designing buildings that float in regions with rising sea levels. The need to design buildings that respond to the conditions exacted by climate change is at the heart of architectural resilience thinking. How this is achieved is both challenging technically, but arguably more importantly is how planners and stakeholders implement this in an ecologically empathetic manner.