Resilient city

Resilience is often described as the ability to return to an original state – no matter whether it’s about individual persons or society, individual companies, the economy of a country or natural ecosystems. The resilient city plays a very special role as the physical setting for all these individual aspects.

City as an organism
Green lungs, traffic arteries, urban bodies and tissues – there are countless analogies to living organisms for describing cities: cities can be vibrant or sleepy, open or closed, integrating or repelling. These comparisons are hardly surprising, because cities are the product of the people who live in them and who, as organisms, are in turn part of the natural environment. Resilient cities are therefore often talked about in the context of the impact of climate change on megacities. The responses to such stress factors range from the use of artificial intelligence to the forecast of extreme weather events and to calls for more and smarter urban greenery to improve the microclimate and reduce the heat build-up. However, recalling again the picture of the city as an organism, it quickly becomes clear that a resilient city must do much more than this.

Creating spaces of opportunity
Whether in Berlin, New York or Tokyo, cities are usually perceived as particularly pleasant if they are urban, multifaceted, full of history and stories and if they provide space for the most diverse peoples, cultures, uses and building typologies. “The city is a space of opportunity for many things and many people, and that is why it has been a model of success since the earliest times of mankind,” said the urban researcher Ida Pirstinger in an interview with the Austrian trade magazine “Architektur” about a year ago. And she continued: “The openness to new and unknown things is what distinguishes it, just like its density. The density of people, of buildings, of offers and interactions [...]. All this leads to a certain heterogeneity, which is important for its functioning.” This diversity is not only an essential feature of any contemporary urban utopia and of a city worth living in for all. It also is the key to its resilience. Because the more multifaceted and diverse it is, the more resilient it is to the social, ecological and economic shocks of our time. By way of illustration, resilient cities have the healthy (bio)diversity of a primeval forest, whereas the functionally separated cities of the modern age can be more likened to an agricultural monoculture and are therefore correspondingly vulnerable to stress factors.

Monteverde Wien fassade

Photo: Pez Hejduk

Monteverde Wien-fassade-2

Photo: Pez Hejduk

Hybrid concepts of use
It would be hard to express more aptly than these words of Winston Churchill how great an influence the built environment has on people. However, it is also clear that this influence takes place over very long periods of time and that only much later does any rethinking have a concrete effect. In view of this fact, there is no time to lose when it comes to counter-acting social change and climate change with architecture and urban development. In this context, new types of floor plan that really correspond to today’s forms of living and working are indispensable, as is the overlapping of uses – for example, with the help of hybrid concepts of use. This can mean that ground floors house shops, restaurants and service companies, while the upper floors serve as mixed work and living spaces. However, a small-scale mix of uses is also achieved when a residential building offers a wide variety of housing. In other words, when shared flats for pensioners or students are located next to and above privately financed and publicly subsidised flats for singles or families which can be enlarged or reduced in size without great effort through the use of extra, flexible spaces and rooms.

Ceramics as a material for architecture and urban spaces
It is important to understand that cities are made up of building blocks that do not simply lie next to each other, instead have to intertwine – taking into account the truism that the outer walls of the houses are at the same time the inner walls of the city. If what happens in the houses is also perceptible in the surrounding area, this not only contributes to the vitalisation of the urban space. It also ensures that people better understand the essence of the city. Therefore, architectural concepts expressing this continuity are in demand. What is more obvious, for example, than cladding the facade of a swimming pool – whose bathing, wellness and relaxation areas are mainly characterised by the sensuous interplay of a wide variety of ceramic tiles – with facade ceramics? Ceramics is one of the few materials that can be easily customised in terms of shape, colour, size and surface finish and can be used at any scale in interior and exterior spaces: on high-rise building facades as well as in open access areas and bathrooms designed as puristic retreats.

New aesthetics in the sense of the circular economy
In a resilient city, there are no spaces perfectly tailored to only one aspect or type of use, as perfection always aims at a static state that cannot exist in a time of constant change. Similarly, there is also no room for aesthetics geared to glamour and perfection. What we need instead, in the sense of a cradle-to-cradle principle, are products made from regionally abundant raw materials that ideally remain in place for a very long time without suffering damage or being harmful. This is the case with ceramics. Ceramic tiles, for example, are often used at heavily frequented airports and underground stations because of their long-lasting robustness – places that usually make huge demands on both the cleanability of surfaces and the quality of the design and quality of the location. To ensure that, if necessary, products can be relocated and reused in the case of modifications, they must be non-destructive and easy to remove. Only when all potential in this area has been exhausted can worn-out product components be recycled. In the ideal conception of the circular economy, there is no such thing as waste, just as there is no such thing as composite materials whose bonds cannot be broken again, or can only be broken again with great effort.

Especially in the case of materials that cannot be recycled indefinitely (such as glass or steel) in a consistent quality, novel material properties often emerge in the recycling process. These are usually attractive precisely because of their imperfection. An example for this are windows made of recycled plastic, whose irregular, finely structured surfaces paradoxically create a somehow natural-looking appearance. Products like these will one day have a decisive influence on our everyday lives – namely, when all products not made from renewable raw materials are recycled products because there are no more “fresh” raw materials. Uniform European or even global standards as well as digital tools will be indispensable in this future. On the one hand, to manufacture and recycle products efficiently and, on the other, to make the material compositions of buildings available in online platforms such as Madaster, turning those buildings into valuable raw material depots.

The resilient city has the big picture in mind
It doesn’t matter on which level we choose to look at resilience. In the end, the same point of reference always applies: “The most resilient system is life itself: nature, evolution, planet Earth,” writes the Zukunftsinstitut, founded by Matthias Horx, in its study “Zukunftskraft Resilienz”. “The ‘natural order of things’ is a great disorder in reality. Living systems are ‘fragilely stable’ and ‘messy’, they are based on fault tolerances and constantly generate adaptations. Thus, natural resilience is not a higher kind of effectiveness, but rather a ‘wild’ abundance that builds reserves.” So when resilience is mentioned, ultimately, the big picture is always meant. “Resilience is an active and dynamic process,” says the Leibniz Institute for Resilience Research. This process must be cultivated in the city in particular, because the resilient city is, as it were, the common denominator for people, the environment, society and the economy. What is needed here are those spaces of opportunity, that heterogeneity, that great disorder from which we humans can draw in a similar way to the system of life from the cycles of nature.

AGROB-BUCHTAL Fritz-Tower-Berlin Motiv-1