Resilient: the evolving terminology of ecological development

February 16, 2012

‘Resilience’ is a buzzword in today’s architectural discourse. Like ‘sustainability’ before it, is it destined to become a cliché stripped of all practical efficacy?

We are all ruled by dead language, but it is only when language has become utterly meaningless that it can be used in architecture.

Writing more than a decade ago, architectural critic Martin Pawley ridiculed the use and abuse of the term ‘sustainability’. He quipped: “We are all ruled by dead ideas, but it is only when an idea has become utterly meaningless that it can be used in politics.”[01] If one substitutes ‘language’ for ‘ideas’ and ‘architecture’ for ‘politics’, Pawley’s statement largely holds true. In the 1990s, an entire subset of contemporary architecture was based on a skimmed read of Deleuze’s The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque (1993), spawning a multitude of folded walls, floors and roof planes. Recently, the word ‘resilient’ has become similarly entrenched in the architectural lexicon, replacing ‘sustainable’ as the adjective of choice to describe responsible ecological development (sustainable having dethroned ‘green’ some time before). But what exactly does resilience mean? To what can we ascribe its recent popularity? How does it diverge from the discourse of sustainability?

‘Resilience’, from the Latin resilire (to rebound or recoil), related originally to the elastic properties of materials. Two centuries after it was introduced into the English language, Irishman Robert Mallet developed his ‘modulus of resilience’ during the Crimean War, a measure designed to assess how materials stood up to severe stress. As both a naval engineer and the inventor of a colossal mortar capable of hurling a 1100 kilogram spherical shell over 2.4 kilometres, he had ample opportunity to observe such stress. Following the war, he applied firsthand knowledge of destruction to the Great Neapolitan Earthquake, using the new medium of photography to document structural damage and explain why buildings had collapsed.

Robert Mallet: The Father of Resilience?


In 1973, CS (Buzz) Hollings redefined resilience to describe the durability of ecosystems. In his landmark paper ‘Resilience and Stability of Ecological Systems’, he stated: “Resilience determines the persistence of relationships within a system and is a measure of the ability of these systems to absorb changes of … variables and parameters and still persist.”[02] While Mallet saw resilience as a process of deformation and subsequent return to an original state, Hollings recognised that organisms might be inexorably altered, yet still retain the capacity to survive. Mallet calculated known factors; Hollings embraced the unknown.

Between 13 January 2010 and 11 March 2011, a series of natural disasters rocked the globe, with quakes, floods and tsunamis devastating Haiti, Chile, Brisbane, Christchurch and Japan. Sometime during that period, resilience really started to penetrate architectural discourse, a phenomenon I first encountered when reviewing Survival versus Resilience, a project by BKK Architects, Village Well, Charter Keck Cramer and Daniel Piker for the Australian exhibition at the 2010 Venice Architecture Biennale. The survival scenario envisaged humanity continuing to grow, consume and pollute with little consideration for the consequences. By contrast, the ‘resilient city’ was one that could swell or diminish according to fluctuating needs. In their 2010 project, A Resilient Social-Ecological Urbanity, planner Marco Miglioranzi, Stockholm Resilience Centre masters student Matteo Giusti and German architects N2M proposed a similar vision for the city of Henna, Finland. Henna’s built environment would grow and decay in sync with “governance networks, social dynamics and metabolic flows”,[03] its future state uncertain.

Survival vs Resilience


The upcoming instalment in the Pamphlet Architecture series from Princeton Architectural Press is also devoted to the theme. Edited by James A Craig and Matt Ozga-Lawn, the Resilience edition explores its topic “through an investigation of the ravaged city of Warsaw … a desolate area of disused freight rail tracks, commercial lots, gasometer buildings and other industrial apparatus”.[04] The connection between devastation and resilience was perhaps inspired in turn by ‘Post-Traumatic Urbanism’, a volume of Architectural Design guest-edited in 2010 by Adrian Lahoud, Charles Rice and Anthony Burke.

In his introduction, Lahoud defines resilience as “the ability of a system to recover after it has absorbed some shock. A resilient city is one that has evolved in an unstable environment and developed adaptations to deal with uncertainty. Typically these adaptations take the form of slack and redundancy in its networks.”[05] We can therefore assume that resilience is not just something that can be planned, but is also something that can be observed in the resurgence of cities that have suffered damage through war, depression or devastation. How then does resilience operate at the scale of buildings?

Architectural Design, 'Post-traumatic urbanism'


Sir John Soane’s unbuilt design for the Bank of England (main image) may have been the first architectural project to illustrate the idea of resilience. In Joseph Gandy’s iconic 1830 painting, the bank is depicted from some future vantage point as a crumbling, roof-less ruin. The suggestion of this image is not that the bank will be of fragile construction, but that it will be of enduring significance sufficient to ensure its survival as ruin. Rem Koolhaas describes a notion not unlike this in his manifesto of ‘Bigness’, proposing the provision of excess capacity to accommodate unseen future use.

While these examples are conceptual, there is a more literal interpretation of resilience in circulation. This is an interpretation that owes more to Mallett than Hollings. In the context of Melbourne’s bushfires or Brisbane’s floods, ‘resilience’ has been used to describe the selection of durable materials and the design of reinforced living spaces. Buildings are protected like bomb shelters or propped on stilts. However, the larger question, whether settlement should continue in floodplains or fire-prone areas, is carefully avoided. If ‘resilience’ can encompass flexibility, adaptation and survival, isn’t it just a synonym for ‘sustainability’? Why the change in terminology?

‘Sustainability’, like ‘green’ before it, was hijacked, subverted and stripped of its meaning by association with an inexhaustible number of patently unsustainable projects. The cynical use of ‘sustainable’ to describe speculative development or useless features such as vertical gardens has clearly devalued the term. Yet confusion over the meaning of resilience suggests that it will be no more appropriately applied than the terms preceding it.

I would argue that the real problem with the concept of sustainability was confusion over the so-called tipping point, the ledge before the descent towards apocalyptic climate change. It was never clear whether the utopia of carbon-neutrality and self-sufficiency envisioned by the champions of sustainability was intended to arrive before or after this tipping point, and therefore whether our actions were intended to stave off or mitigate disaster. The most influential proponent of sustainability, Al Gore, actively promoted this confusion when he co-located his Inconvenient Truth slideshows with screenings of disaster-porn flick, The Day After Tomorrow. Gore caught the attention of Hollywood producers and set the scene for a big-screen version of his now-ubiquitous presentation.

The wilful blurring of ecological science with science fiction, however, only abetted years of political indecision over energy-efficient technologies and environmental policy. In Australia, the sense of urgency attached to climate change has noticeably waned. As Lahoud puts it: “The image of ecological catastrophe is continually mobilised in environmental discourse. It is now a cliché to enlist images of disaster as support for urban arguments.”[06]

At the recent 24th World Congress of Architecture in Tokyo, a number of sessions were related to the Japan earthquake. One, ‘Resilience in Architectural Technologies’, stated: “The earthquake had disclosed the vulnerability of our built environment.” After years of consuming images of disaster from sustainability advocates, the real experience of disaster seems to have upset our equilibrium. It seems foolish to envision stable, well-considered, technological systems when unforeseen problems appear to lurk beneath the earth’s crust. Resilience can be seen as a vague term that encapsulates our current uncertainty.

A Resilient Social-Ecological Urbanity


According to Holling: “The resilience framework can accommodate this shift of perspective, for it does not require a precise capacity to predict the future, but only a qualitative capacity to devise systems that can absorb and accommodate future events in whatever unexpected form they may take.”[07] Architecture, predicated in its conventional form on the making of plans and prediction of the future, seems ill prepared to respond to this climate of uncertainty.

In fact, architects may have already been left behind. Greg Lindsay describes the development of two new cities designed not by planners or architects but software engineers. The first, “a medium-size town on 20 square miles of New Mexico desert, populated entirely by robots”, is due to open next year. In Portugal, a smart city is being built to run on an ‘urban operating system’ where “efficiency is all that matters: buildings are ruthlessly junked at the first signs of obsolescence, their architectural quality being beside the point.”[08]

Perhaps, while wringing our hands about climate change and natural disasters, we missed the real cataclysm: the outmoding of architectural thought. If the profession is to survive in this environment, it will have to become more resilient.

David Neustein is the Sydney editor of Architectural Review Australia.

[01] Martin Pawley, ‘Sustainability: a big word with little meaning’, The Independent, 11 July 2000, www.independent.co.uk
[02] CS Holling, ‘Resilience and Stability of Ecological Systems’, Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics, vol 4 (1973), 17.
[03] Matteo Giusti, ‘Resilience meets architecture and urban planning’, Resilience Science, 12 October 2010, http://rs.resalliance.org
[04] See Princeton Architectural Press: www.papress.com
[05] Adrian Lahoud, ‘Introduction’ in Post-Traumatic Urbanism: Architectural Design, eds Adrian Lahoud, Charles and Anthony Burke, vol. 80, no. 5, September 2010, 19.
[06] Lahoud, ‘Introduction’, 20.
[07] Holling, ‘Resilience and Stability’, 21.
[08] Greg Lindsay, ‘Not-So-Smart Cities’, The New York Times Sunday Review, 24 September 2011, www.nytimes.com

  • Peter Tonkin February 16th, 2012 3:41 pm

    We’ve always called this ‘Durability’ – not quite the 70s ‘loose-fit, long life’ but close.

    And Soane’s Bank of England WAS built – it just got demolished long before it could become a ruin. It’s Roman facade was retained, but the array of top lit vaulted rooms was demolished in Sir Herbert Baker’s 1930s rebuilding. Nikolaus Pevsner called this “the greatest architectural crime, in the City of London, of the twentieth century”. A lesson in value, durability and fashion….

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