On Resilient Settlement

Tools and strategies for transition

On “Resilient Design”


I was just arguing with a friend who is a very prominent architect.  He was bemonaning the evolution of design orthodoxy, and those who cling to one position regarding design principles.  He argues that it’s important to be able to identify with several positions, and to be adaptable enough to change positions over time.

I said I thought he identified a very important point – but he had failed to see the deeper lesson.

The point he is right about is that design has become wholly divorced from sound evidence-based methodology, and wholly ex-cathedra.  He rightly criticizes those who preach from one thundering pulpit.  But then he seems to say, the solution is to preach from several pulpits, and dart between them.  (Or make up a new one, and quick.)

I told him that this appears to me to be the same old modernist folly, which has resulted in so many documented fiascos.  And neotraditionalism (which he mentions) was just one more example that fell victim to it too — by seeing itself as a mere modernist incarnation of yet another design pulpit.  It didn’t see the serious principles of resilient design that were at work, and exported the superficial image of traditional design, as a mere stylistic preference.

So what do we learn from the design processes of evolutionary biology – which, after all, get us sustainability in the millions of years, and beauty, and productivity, and variety, and so on?  (Talk about Giedion’s modern “problem of large numbers” – solved, times a trillion!)

We learn that a proposition gets tested and refined, or it gets selected out of the system.  And those propositions that survive get linked up in a pattern-like way, and become resilient types.  The head-body-tail-arms type that evolved in the Cambrian explosion is an example.  

An analogy might be to say (comically, but with some truth) that the new designers want to stick the head up the ass.  And they haven’t really tried it out, and there is no evolutionary record of success.  It’s just a design gesture, a clever conceit, a folly.  All of design is reduced to a series of artistic gestures, a highly refined insider game.  Fine on those terms — but not a formula for urban resilience, or sustainability.

But the real managers of this show – as Le Corbusier rightly noted – are the engineers.  And now Rem Koolhaas and others have that right too. Their idea of sustainability is linear: you define an objective, and then you design a technology that appears to meet it.  And then you combine these technologies.  This actually works pretty well when you have a hell of a lot of time and money to develop, say, a Boeing Dreamliner.  But then you are prone to all kinds of non-resilient issues: goddamn Rolls Royce fails to deliver its engines on time, the system gets jammed up, and so on.   

A few of these systemic failures are no big deal.  But when they add up, if you don’t have resilience, you get nasty unintended consequences, and a non-resilient ecological system overall.  You get climate change, and failing economics, and a host of other problems.   You get lots of efforts at sustainability that don’t add up to real sustainability – not a promising set of technologies to last 1 million years, or 10,000 years, or even 100 years.  (Six degrees in 100 years, as we’re on the path to now, is highly non- resilient.)

And then you get postmodernists bemoaning the failure of this idyllic modern technological rationality, which we thought would work so perfectly, and deliver a final utopia of reason.  Artistic hand-wringing, woe is us.  Well, let’s make junkspace anyway, and celebrate this crater of modernity.  Or deconstruct its failures, without taking any lessons from that (for none are believed possible).

But the lessons are there, and the scientific method reveals them in the fields like evolutionary biology.  The analogs of resilient design and resilient types are there.  And lo and behold, there is an analog of traditional types in urban evolution too.

The engineers, using linear methods, define their objectives and then use mechanical processes and concepts to get there.  Slicing, stamping, rolling, creating sheets, planes and lines at high tolerances.  This is the language of modernism, which was bequeathed to it by the engineers. 

But that’s not how natural morphology works.  (How it works, that is, to create not Dreamliners, but eagles vastly more nimble and sophisticated and sustainable; not computers, but brains with trillions of neurons.) 

Just as it’s not a mere linear process of defining and then combining, but of transforming resilient patterns, so the evolution of specific forms takes on these resilient pattern-like qualities, which solve basic problems, and then allow articulation of more detailed problems.  So you get the head-body-tail, and then you get the fish, or the alligator, or the dragonfly.   (Not the head up the ass!)

This is the penny that hasn’t dropped in “sustainable” design, and in the field of “traditional” design: the whole topic of evolutionary traditional types; the recognition of the evolution of problem-solving information, and the way it can be re-used. (In a testable, definable, comprehensible way – a way that can be evaluated.)

And to return to our topic, this occurs in the form of urbanism as well as buildings.  It suggests that we need to identify these resilient patterns, and re-use the ones that work.  Not everything is a novel mechanical problem, or a problem to pick an arbitrary ex cathedra position on, and then go at from there.  There is indeed a rational problem of refinement that is possible: but it requires drawing back on the information contained in adaptive evolution over centuries.

Otherwise, we are merely redesigning bacteria.  Good luck with that.

                                                   *      *      *

For those who know Christopher Alexander’s work on patterns, there is a very interesting analog here – or perhaps, as the paper below suggests, more than an analog.  There is some interesting work being done now on something called “dynamical patterning modules” in evolutionary biology.  They may be able to account for the evolution of multi-cellular form.  THis is what Newman and Bhat of New York Medical College are proposing – so I close this discussion of what I consider a highly promising topic with their abstract:

 Int J Dev Biol. 2009;53(5-6):693-705.

Dynamical patterning modules: a “pattern language” for development and evolution of multicellular form.

Newman SABhat R.

Department of Cell Biology and Anatomy, New York Medical College, New York 10595, USA. newman@nymc.edu

Comment in:



This article considers the role played by a core set of “dynamical patterning modules” (DPMs) in the origination, development and evolution of complex organisms. These consist of the products of a subset of the genes of what has come to be known as the “developmental-genetic toolkit” in association with physical processes they mobilize. The physical processes are those characteristic of chemically and mechanically excitable mesoscopic systems like cell aggregates: cohesion, viscoelasticity, diffusion, spatiotemporal heterogeneity based on activator-inhibitor interaction, and multistable and oscillatory dynamics. We focus on the emergence of the Metazoa, and show how toolkit gene products and pathways that pre-existed the metazoans acquired novel morphogenetic functions simply by virtue of the change in scale and context inherent to multicellularity. We propose that DPMs, acting singly and in combination with each other, constitute a “pattern language” capable of generating all metazoan body plans and organ forms. This concept implies that the multicellular organisms of the late Precambrian-early Cambrian were phenotypically plastic, fluently exploring morphospace in a fashion decoupled from both function-based selection and genotypic change. The relatively stable developmental trajectories and morphological phenotypes of modern organisms, then, are considered to be products of stabilizing selection. This perspective solves the apparent “molecular homology-analogy paradox,” whereby widely divergent modern animal types utilize the same molecular toolkit during development, but it does so by inverting the neo-Darwinian principle that phenotypic disparity was generated over long periods of time in concert with, and in proportion to genotypic change.  

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This entry was posted on August 29, 2010 by .
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