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Resilient Buildings

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Resilient Buildings
Photo: Sendai Mediatheque by Scarlet Green

In 1924, the architect George Martin Huss published a letter inThe New York Times, responding to an article about whether the newly constructed Woolworth Building was likely to collapse on a windy day. Skyscrapers tended to make people nervous in their earliest days, as Ric Burns describes in his documentary history of New York; many chose not to walk too near them, lest these impossibly tall buildings of 10 or 20 stories fall down.

Huss, however, knew the stately new building would be fine. “There is a well-known quality of any structure, which is well built, called resilience, which enables the material under stress to resume its original condition.” He recalls a trip he took to Southern Bavaria in 1873, on which he observed a stone-built church tower, which “had passed through The Thirty Years’ War and bore the marks of solid cannon shot.” To reassure nervous guests during a violent rainstorm, the architect explained those same principles of resilient engineering. (Incidentally, Huss’s Hooper Fountain, erected in 1894, is still standing.)

After nearly a century of stresses of all descriptions, cities are responding in a wide variety of ways. Some, like New York, are now incorporating resilience into building codes; the U.S. Green Building Council, which wrote and administer the LEED standards for buildings, is making resilience a policy priority as well.

The Rockefeller Foundation asked several leading architecture critics for their definition of architectural resiliency—and what contemporary architects, engineers, students, governments, and city dwellers can learn from buildings past and present.

Justin Davidson, architecture critic at New York magazine:

The first thing that popped into my mind was the YouTube video of the Sendai Mediatheque building [in Sendai, Japan — pictured above] — designed by Toyo Ito — during the earthquake in 2011. You can see it was designed to withstand a massive shock, and in the clip, you can see that each floor is floating free of the columns, so that the slabs wave, but the structure doesn’t crack. In her Wall St. Journal piece, Ada Louise Huxtable devoted her whole review of the building to its elegant, earthquake-resistant design.

In recent years, there’s been a really big push to make new buildings able to withstand earthquakes that would otherwise be catastrophic. After the 1994 Northridge earthquake in California, there was a broad nationwide push to get engineers together and study how buildings respond in different soils. Now there’s starting to be a similar kind of scientific push to understand the dynamics of floodwaters. Obviously, you can simply raise a building above the flood zone so that it just stays dry, but there are other things you can do. It’s been an issue in Dutch design for a long time: they have floating houses and larger buildings designed to have water go through and underneath them, while the mechanical systems stay dry.

A resilient building is a building that rolls with the punches. A resilient building in a flood zone isn’t necessarily designed not to get wet—it can get wet, because it’s designed not to fall apart. A perfect example is in Red Hook [Brooklyn], which got pretty brutally battered by floodwaters during Hurricane Sandy, since it’s so low-lying. The two biggest businesses in Red Hook are Ikea and Fairway [supermarket]. The way Ikea is designed—where they lift everything to the second floor—meant that it could withstand damage, restock and go back to business immediately. But Fairway is in a Civil War–era warehouse, with no protection, and the entire store was underwater. They had to close, repair, and restock their entire inventory. A smaller business would have been wiped out completely.

The buildings that have remained from ancient times and have withstood all kinds of stresses—pillaging, gravity, war, decay—were the ones that were built redundantly, with enough extra material that they could survive a certain amount of destruction. They weren’t on the edge. A lot of engineering today is about how little steel can you use, how lightweight can the building be, how accurately can you calculate the margins? When you’re dealing with heavy masonry buildings, when one piece of it goes, it doesn’t mean the whole thing falls down.

Frederico Duarte, Lisbon design critic:

When you live in Lisbon like I do, the words resilient building make you think about one thing: will it survive the next big earthquake? In 1755, one of the strongest earthquakes to ever hit Europe destroyed much of the Portuguese capital. Its earthly shockwaves were felt as far as Jamaica; its human aftermath made Voltaire break from his philosophical optimism and ask for less philosophizing and more humanism.

The military engineers and architects who rebuilt Lisbon’s downtown based on a grid and on other practical and rigid design principles designed what was seen as the first urban materialization of the Enlightenment. They also created and systematically implemented the first earthquake-proof building structure, which was based on a wooden grid “cage,” and that is still seen today as a highly resilient building method. Today, much of these buildings survive, but few of their cage structures have remained intact. Walls were taken down, basements were dug, and new floors were added.

On more recent renovations, it became fashionable to show the wooden beams these cage structures are made of, making previously wood-and-mortar, opaque walls lighter, semi-transparent, opening up each apartments while revealing the building’s structure and history. Some specialists say this is hardly a sound practice, and no one really knows what will happen to Lisbon if an earthquake like the one that hit it on All Saints Day over 260 years ago. Everyone fears the worse, but many wonder how well these enlightened cages will take it.

Mark Lamster, architecture critic of the Dallas Morning News and professor in the architecture school at the University of Texas at Arlington:

The architecture business cycles through “isms” at a rapid rate. Sustainability was in many ways a renunciation of the highly formal “starchitecture” design of the 1990s. The newest approach, accelerated in the wake of Katrina and Sandy, is resiliency: How can we protect our buildings and our cities and landscapes from the environmental and man-made disasters that will inevitably arrive?

Five years ago, architects and planners rushed to redevelop waterfronts as public amenities. Now there’s a bit more circumspection about the appropriate way to do that. But conscientious architects have always been sensitive to building spaces that are formally and materially inventive, work in their environments, and last for decades, if not centuries. The Parthenon, the Coliseum, the Seagram Building. Quality lasts.

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