A Return to Adaptive Building Patterns
Nassim Nicholas Taleb does not mention cities, neighborhoods, or buildings in his 2010 essay, On Robustness and Fragility. Yet, his writing comes precisely at a time when it can greatly inform our work rebuilding our human habitat. Robustness and Fragility describes the attributes that are intrinsic to adapting to, and in some cases benefitting from, unpredictable disruptions (what he refers to as Black Swans, the title of his seminal 2007 book). Given our incompleteness of knowledge about these future events, Taleb suggests that “progress (and survival) cannot take place without [three types of redundancies]:”
- Redundancy as insurance: spare parts;
- Size redundancy: decentralization to counter “too big to fail;” and
- Functional redundancy: performing multiple, sometimes unanticipated, functions beyond its original purpose
With the complexity of what our profession now faces, these redundancies offer us an elegant, Vitruviun-esque straightforwardness. While regeneration is often attributed to a number of interrelated causes, we intuitively know that urban resiliency is underpinned by our physical environment (commonly thought of as “good bones”). Conversely, we know that most post-war, exurban settlement patterns have proven extremely difficult, if not impossible, to repurpose. If we can identify where Taleb’s redundancies appear in the buildings and cities that have survived generations of change, is it then possible to build new buildings and neighborhoods that are robust to Taleb's unknown unknown and prepared for ordinary randomness in our human evolution?
Rather than making speculative bets on forecasts, we should be fashioning our communities to be highly adaptive to that which we cannot predict. This does not dispense with the need of economic analysis but the form we ascribe our settlements should assume that change is the only constant. This necessarily calls for a more adaptive building tradition, the very tradition we abandoned a century ago. It demands a design capacity that embraces inherited patterns based on empirical successes and permits the products of this design to be adapted, repurposed, and evolve.