Well, it's December here in New York City, and with December comes The Nasty. The Nasty is when the sun sets at 4:15 and biting winds barrel up and down the avenues funneled by buildings to rip right through your uniqlo jacket. Sure, New York is charming this time of year with the Hanukah lights and the holiday drinking, but The Nasty is here and it's going to stay a while. Which is why I start attending the lectures at the Architectural League with regularity. It's time to stay inside and shuttle cattle-like from home to office to lecture to home.
The Architecture League is one of the best consolation prizes in being banished to New York City. Most good designers don't live here and so mistakenly think it a wonderful notion to visit and give a lecture (and the ones that do live here figure "ah, what the hell"). Last week German architect/engineer Werner Sobek gave a long-winded presentation of his work and his philosophy. The work was fascinating and the philosophy was full of good Germanic phrases like "living in the future", "it must be perfect" and "designed with perfect efficiency". All of this was presented in a tidy monotone with a pretentious sneer and I highly recommend that you sneak a peak at his twirling umbrellas if you get a chance.
But to the larger point: recently Places ran a provocative piece called Fracture Critical, a fascinating critique of superefficient engineering which is subject to catastrophic failure if one piece goes wrong (this idea was then extrapolated out to apply to last year's credit crash and our society as a whole-a highly recommended read). The title comes from the engineering term "fracture-critical" which is defined by efficiency and a lack of redundancy (as well as two other characteristics which I've forgotten and can't be bothered to look up). This is in line with a point made by entomologist E.O. Wilson about biological systems. In The Diversity of Life he states that "most communities of organisms are held together by redundancies in the system. In many cases two or more ecologically similar species live in the same area, and any one can fill the niches of others extinguished, more or less." If resiliency and efficiency are opposites in engineering and also in biological systems, it follows that the design of the landscape is a dance between these two poles, choices made based on a particular deterministic or arbitrary ethos, or perhaps the outcome of non-linear dynamics.
The good scientists over at the Resilience Alliance define ecosystem resilience as "the capacity of an ecosystem to tolerate disturbance without collapsing into a qualitatively different state that is controlled by a different set of processes." This seems quite a logical metaphor to extend to other situations and systems. A local economy built around a single industry is destined for decline and a business sustained by a cult of personality will inevitably suffer hardship. But the two are not necessarily diametrically opposed. Perhaps there is some synergy between the two.