Sunday, December 6, 2009

Resiliency v. Efficiency and the Werner Sobek Show!

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.

One of Werner's most compelling points was his insistence on "designing with energy", as opposed to material, exemplified best by the giant umbrellas. Intended to span some 50 meters across, he had his cadre of german engineers run some numbers and quickly realized that no carbon reinforced titanium rods were going to do the trick. He had to get rid of the rods. He would just spend energy on rotating the umbrellas at high speeds and the centrifugal forces would cause the fabric to spread out. Genius! And this was all justified by comparing the "embedded" energy with the energy needed to rotate the umbrellas. Of course, he didn't show any actual energy savings during the lecture, but the point about considering all energy inherent in the functioning of a structure (not just the monthly energy bill) was a very good one, if not particularly novel. The design would be highly efficient in terms of material and initial energy input, while also redundant- the umbrella fabric was engineered to have ridges and ribs reinforcing the zones prone to failure. Instead of relying on thin spokes for integrity, the fabric was shaped to employ tensile forces while resisting failure, with patches and ribs reinforcing the weak spots.

In place of balancing resiliency and efficiency as opposing characteristics, there is a synergy between the two. And there are giant umbrellas spinning above.

1 comment:

  1. I must admit, when I hit the word "synergy" in perhaps the next-to-last paragraph, I got concerned. I've always thought it to be one of those corporate-speak words that the Human Resources department would throw around to help soften a conversation involving a personality conflict between you and a coworker, even if the coworker goes on smoke breaks every thirty minutes, steals other people's food from the fridge, and is historically quite counterproductive during important critiques. But I'm speaking hypothetically.

    I think the reality is that "synergy" is a real word though - at least according to Wikipedia, which negates my entire comment thus far.

    I will add though, as a desperate, last-resort attempt to provide something more than a window into my personal linguistic shortcomings - that while I may have been in doubt about the word synergy (despite now realizing that the quack Buckmister Fuller actually invented it), my attention and adoration was regained in seeing a painfully obvious, yet cuttingly casual reference to cycling ("light spokes") near the essay's thoughtful conclusion.