Beyond the Now

Shouldn’t we be concentrating on designing ‘pandemic-proof’ buildings or designing urban spaces with social distancing in mind? Similar questions have come up in meetings these past few weeks as various design team advisors and consultants chime in to advise the client to ‘think ahead’. I too share their eagerness to solve the current situation and extract valuable learnings.

However, I believe it’s important not to be too literal, nor so short sighted, in our approach. I’m not saying that copper door handles that help to mitigate germ spread or one-person benches in plazas are bad ideas per se. But hyper focusing on preventing another similar sanitary crisis, ignores that life and nature are unpredictable and tend not to strike twice in exactly the same way. What’s really needed is resilience.

Hyper focusing on preventing another similar sanitary crisis, ignores that life and nature are unpredictable and tend not to strike twice in exactly the same way. What’s really needed is resilience.

A Multifaceted Approach

In architecture, we talk about urban resilience, which is a city’s ability to survive, adapt, and grow despite acute shocks and chronic stresses. Acute shocks or sudden events range from earthquakes to disease outbreaks like the one we face today. Chronic stresses, on the other hand, denote slow burning disasters such as endemic violence and discrimination or food and water shortages. My affinity towards urban resilience started in recent years, but the current crisis makes it all the more clear and relevant.

What really resonates with me in the concept of resilience is that it’s about tackling an issue from various perspectives. It reminds me of cubism, which so happens to be my favorite art movement, where Picasso, Braques and the likes depicted scenes from a multitude of viewpoints simultaneously. 

Architects and designers have historically aspired to bring about change. Today, it comes in the form of movements to practice more environmentally friendly design or efforts to close social gaps through qualitative affordable housing for example. Resilience is about going that extra mile. It’s about driving positive change to create robust resilience on all fronts and from different perspectives: that means socially, economically and environmentally. 

Resilience is about going that extra mile. It’s about driving positive change to create robust resilience on all fronts and from different perspectives: that means socially, economically and environmentally.

A Personal Encounter With Resilience

I’d like to draw a parallel here to our own lives, as it is no different. A personal experience with resilience was when I found myself suffering from repetitive strain injury (RSI) in my right hand merely a year into a gruelling masters at the Academy, working by day and taking evening classes. No longer being able to use a computer and having to take medical leave—for what seemed far too long—I would learn to appreciate resilience. It wasn’t in putting all my efforts solely into resting and healing my arm that I would truly get better.

I found that it is rather by building myself up—emotionally, through a healthy life-work balance and nurturing relationships; physically, through a healthy diet and exercise; intellectually, through stimulating work and connections, etc.—that I will be better prepared for what life has in store for me. For when adversity raises its ugly head, it may be in any form imaginable from disease, loss of loved ones to unemployment or burn out. I cannot predict the future but I can work on preparing as best I can for both the expected and the unexpected.

Building Robustness

As designers of the built environment that is exactly the role we must play. Fostering greater robustness and resilience, each intervention at a time. We must go beyond reacting and focus on building resilient buildings, neighborhoods, cities and regions. In doing so, we’ll enable them to be able to bounce back when faced with stresses or acute shocks like the pandemic we face today as well as the many unknown and diverse crises yet to come.

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