Article Review: ‘Resilient’ by David Neustein

Hello again,

As you’ve probably guessed, I am back at work. Yes, already. It seems like yesterday I was rejoicing over the prospect of having two weeks to myself, two weeks to do all this stuff that I had never done before like run, cycle and swim everyday (what was I thinking), like reading a book a day, like writing a blog. OK I got to the last one, we can agree on that.

One other thing I did is spend a lot of time with friends, people like David Neustein and Grace Mortlock, whose company I greatly enjoy and with whom, if left to my own devices (as I was during the break) I would spend a lot of time. A lot.

David and I have gotten along since I met him in line to the Rick Joy talk at Sydney University, almost 18 months ago. It’s no surprise, David is not only super interesting and erudite, but he also has an amazing appetite for life and knowledge. So there’s not a dull moment, that’s for sure.

I was at David’s the other night, and picked up the latest issue to Architectural Review Australia, ‘The Resilient City’, edited by Simon Sellars. David had two articles in the issue. Impressive. But I knew of David’s track record in writing. He’ll often start a conversation with you about this incredible idea and sure enough, within a few weeks, that same train of thought will have flourished into an eloquently written article, replete with carefully chosen references and eccentricities. He makes writing look so easy, really.

David’s article is called ‘Resilient: The Evolving Terminology of Ecological Development’, a timely discussion for an issue on ‘The Resilient City’. David looks at the history of architectural buzzwords and finds the word ‘resilient’ at the end of this tortuous path. It’s currently all the rage, but who knows what architects will find next to describe an architecture they can morally live with.

David’s main argument is that architecture, as an academic endeavour and a design practice is the vocabulary junkyard of the world, a repository of obsolete and inadequate metaphors that architects revel in (for a little while at least). I am being harsh, but how many times did I hear students and practitioners point at design schemes and sell its ‘sustainability’ and ‘green’ virtues, as if one building alone could single-handedly turn around the irreversible trends of climate change.

Given the clear limitations of the architect’s agency at the scale of the building, it is no surprise that they look to the scale of the city to find relevance and an ability to positively and noticeably impact an environment. So when the flavour of the month comes to resilience, how does architecture make a city resilient?

To be fair, ‘resilience’ is a complicated term to understand, it’s not quite elastic, or resistant, or sustainable, it’s not reconstruction and it’s not a city for uncertainty. We don’t build for uncertainty, we don’t build for fluctuating conditions, we design and build in response to  very defined briefs.

Without wanting to be partial to Adrian Lahoud, I think he offers the best definition in my view. He defines resilience as a system that ‘recovers’ after absorbing shock, through the redundancy of its networks. When one system fails, another one kicks in. He often describes Beirut as a resilient city because of the redundant networks that emerged during a sustained period of conflict, the Lebanese Civil War from 1975 to 1990, where people needed to be able to function within the city even if part of it was off limits or cordoned off. So in the end, Beirut’s urban fabric ends up being fragmented by overlapping transportation and trade networks, ready for a variety of debilitating scenarios.

But David’s got a good point: ‘sustainability’ was dropped as an adequate term as a result of its inaccurate and repeated use in archi-speak. It lost its descriptive value. The same is happening with ‘resilience’ with the term now being associated with durability, erroneously, might I add.

I wonder whether this distortion of the meaning of words in the result of the inadequacy of words to describe architectural and spatial concepts, or whether it’s the other way around. I say this in earnest: when you experience a very well designed building, it often surpasses its descriptors, it lies beyond words in the realm of emotion and artistic sensitivity. But with larger issues at stake, with our environmental future in peril, it seems like architecture is falling short of the promise of the word, especially when it comes to a term as subtle as resilience.

David’s article is witty, well researched and well illustrated (which I think we have Simon Sellars to thank for). It’s a very well-developed argument in 1.5 pages. But I feel it’s only the start of a conversation. One to continue on this blog, no doubt about that.

That’s it for today.

One Response to “Article Review: ‘Resilient’ by David Neustein”
  1. Read the glowing review. Happened to bring the glossy home tonight. Now to read the article…

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