As we enter a transition era that demands far greater resilience and sustainability in our technological systems, we must ask tough new questions about existing approaches to architecture and settlement. Post-occupancy evaluations show that many new buildings as well as retrofits of some older buildings, are performing substantially below minimal expectations. In some notable cases, the research results are frankly dismal [see “Toward Resilient Architectures 2: Why Green Often Isn’t”].
The trouble is that the existing system of settlement, developed in the oil-fueled industrial age, is beginning to appear fundamentally limited. And we’re recognizing that it’s not possible to solve our problems using the same typologies that created them in the first place. In a “far-from-equilibrium” world, as resilience theory suggests, we cannot rely on engineered, “bolt-on” approaches to these typologies, which are only likely to produce a cascade of unintended consequences. What we need is an inherent ability to handle “shocks to the system,” of the kind we see routinely in biological systems.
In “Toward Resilient Architectures 1: Biology Lessons” we described several elements of such resilient structures, including redundant (“web-network”) connectivity, approaches incorporating diversity, work distributed across many scales, and fine-grained adaptivity of design elements. We noted that many older structures also had exactly these qualities of resilient structures to a remarkable degree, and in evaluations they often perform surprisingly well today. Nevertheless during the last century, in the dawning age of industrial design, the desirable qualities resilient buildings offered were lost. What happened?
The fractal mathematics of nature bears a striking resemblance to human ornament, as in this fractal generated by a finite subdivision rule. This is not a coincidence: ornament may be what humans use as a kind of “glue” to help weave our spaces together. It now appears that the removal of ornament and pattern has far-reaching consequences for the capacity of environmental structures to form coherent, resilient wholes. Image: Brirush/Wikimedia
A common narrative asserts that the world moved on to more practical and efficient ways of doing things, and older methods were quaint and un-modern. According to this narrative, the new architecture was the inevitable product of inexorable forces, the undeniable expression of an exciting industrial “spirit of the age.” The new buildings would be streamlined, beautiful, and above all, “stylistically appropriate.” (more…)