THE BLOG

Architecture at the End of the World

05/12/2014 09:55 am ET | Updated Jul 12, 2014

"Resilient design" is not the complete answer.

The end is near!

Or so it seems. In mid-March, a University of Maryland study concluded that civilization is racing toward collapse, due to extreme economic inequality and over-consumption of resources stretching the earth's carrying capacity. Two weeks later, the UN-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported that the polar ice caps are melting quickly, water supplies are dwindling, heat waves and heavy rains are escalating, and the oceans are rising at a pace that could devastate coastal communities within our lifetimes. "The worst is yet to come," warned The New York Times.

Not to worry: Architects are on it.

In recent years, designers have become infatuated with the architectural implications of rising seas and severe storms, and resilience has become the "latest buzz word" of the American Institute of Architects (AIA): "Resilience is the new green." (What happened to the old green?)

The Resilient Design Institute (RDI), founded in 2012 by long-time sustainability champion Alex Wilson, defines resilience as "the capacity to adapt to changing conditions and to maintain or regain functionality and vitality in the face of stress or disturbance." This is a critical issue for architects and planners to take on. Ninety percent of the world's largest cities are located on waterfronts, and even three more feet of sea would flood every city on the east coast of the US, says the EPA.

The best examples of resilient design are brilliant. In post-Katrina New Orleans, architects and planners worked closely with counterparts from Amsterdam and Rotterdam to share knowledge among delta communities with similar challenges but separated by 5,000 miles. The Dutch Dialogues proposed to replace "muscular" sea walls with a "vascular" system of channels that spread water over a much larger area to diffuse the impact. During lighter storms, water would activate landscapes and public plazas as social amenities, transforming a potential hazard into new forms of urban space. Architect David Waggoner, who helped lead that effort, brought a similar approach to the recently unveiled Rebuild By Design proposals in the Sandy-torn regions of New York and New Jersey.*

Often, however, resilient design can appear to be the latest excuse for architects to play architect. The more fantastic of recent schemes include floating island cities, underwater "skyscrapers," terra-forming mega-machines, and lots and lots of buildings propped on stilts. Suddenly, Hans Hollein's 50-year-old vision seems uncannily prescient. In the 1960s, the Austrian architect, who died just two weeks ago, created a series of surrealist photomontages featuring enormous "aircraft-carrier cities" marooned in rural landscapes. "Pure, absolute architecture," he called it. Today, his ships in the desert seem prophetic of a world threatened by deluge: When the floods come, the techno-arks would just lift and drift. Hollein was architecture's Noah.

2014-05-09-tumblr_mxam7qcfjO1r6glo5o1_1280.jpg Hans Hollein, Aircraft-Carrier City in Landscape (1964). Collection, Museum of Modern Art.

The irony of architects "adapting to changing conditions" created by global warming is that architects are partly responsible for global warming, since the building sector accounts for nearly half of all carbon emissions. Could resilient design be a pretext to atone for bad karma?

In March, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared that poor air quality, mostly due to emissions and indoor air pollution, has become the single greatest environmental health risk, responsible for seven million deaths per year. Consider this: According to the National Weather Service, while annual weather-related fatalities have nearly doubled over the past several decades, they have never exceeded 1,833 (the year of Katrina), and Sandy was responsible for a fraction of that (285). Air pollution's death toll is orders of magnitude higher. We're worried about cities flooding in the future, but they're killing us right now.

Smart Growth America (SGA) just issued a report confirming the links between sprawl and poor quality of life, higher costs of living, lower economic mobility, increased risk of obesity and diabetes, and shorter life expectancies. And, according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), car-dependent communities have very high numbers of traffic accidents, the leading cause of death among people under the age of 25. The traffic fatality rates in New York and San Francisco are about two people per 100,000, compared to thirteen in Atlanta and sixteen in Tampa. In other words, the probability of dying from a car accident can be eight times higher in low-density regions. If the purpose of resilient design is to protect communities, why isn't more lavish attention put toward transforming suburbs, which are dramatically more deadly than storms?

As the SGA report shows, communities with more compact, connected neighborhoods are safer, healthier, and more economically vital, offering better quality of life for all their residents. Merriam-Webster defines resilience as "the ability to become strong, healthy, or successful again after something bad happens." But responsible design can avoid "something bad" happening in the first place.

Designing for extreme conditions is all the rage, but the normal state of things is a far more urgent problem, and too few designers are reinventing the status quo.

*Full disclosure: RTKL's parent company, ARCADIS, collaborated with Waggoner and others on the Rebuild By Design proposal.

Lance Hosey is Chief Sustainability Officer with the global design leader RTKL and a member of the AIA Committee on the Environment. His latest book is The Shape of Green: Aesthetics, Ecology, and Design.