Resiliency from the Ground Up

A gallery item in the Islamic art section
of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

In a fascinating article entitled “Toward Resilient Architectures: The Geometry of Resilience“, authors Michael Mehaffy and Nikos Salingaros examine resilient geometric structures and their relation to architecture. Their argument is provocative and I suggest you read the entire piece.

I’d like to examine some of their points more closely, as I feel there are implications for viewing a school as an ecosystem.
First of all, they outline four characteristics of resiliency, which readers of this blog will find familiar in concept: “diversity; web-network structure; distribution across a range of scales; and the capacity to self-adapt and “self-organize.””

The authors then dive deeper into these characteristics and how they can relate to human created structures, such as the balance and tension between visual contrast and symmetry, fractals as the differentiation of self-similar forms spread across different scales, and other features. This description of self-organization and proportional relationships is worth exploring further:

“The process of self-organization requires interaction between adjacent regions of space, whose interactions create differentiated boundaries. These groupings are relatively small in number, and hierarchically clustered in space. For example, a larger region will tend to become surrounded by smaller regions, each of which will become surrounded by smaller regions, and so on. It is not a coincidence that our cognitive systems also utilize such low-order groupings (called “chunks” by psychologists). This is one reason that most people seem to prefer simple proportional group relationships: they are more easily perceived within our environment, promoting our emotional comfort and physiological wellbeing. Similarly, because of the natural formation of boundaries and clusters of boundaries, there is an apparent innate preference for frames, trim, and other ornamental details, which define the hierarchical relation of regions of space. Far from superfluous in design, these elements appear to aid our ability to perceive coherent relationships between regions of space.”

This point about how these geometrical features promote emotional comfort and well-being is a central feature of the authors’ argument. They argue that such features have been subsumed by industrial design:

“The fact is that almost all of the above geometric characteristics are radically diminished within the built environments of the last century or so. . . . It’s the consequence of entrusting the fate of humanity to the whims of artistic style, created as a rationale for the historic limits of an oil-age industrial regime. . . this is an inevitable outcome of the “modern” role of designers as apologists and product packagers for what are fundamentally maladaptive but profitable (and visually eye-catching) solutions” (bold added).

This is an interesting critique. I felt that this idea that designers have become compliant ennablers of a steamrolling industrialism can be similarly applied to other professions, such as teachers. How often have we become simple apologists and deliverers of content that is profitable or politically convenient, rather than true conveyers of knowledge? This kowtowing to industrialism promoted the idea that “large concentrated solutions are always superior, and offer a suitable regime to remake the world as a more efficient “machine.””

“In order to understand how this geometrical poverty has come about, we need to look beneath the level of the specific geometries that designers employ, and consider the underlying economic processes that contribute to generate system geometries. For designers, the over-reliance on two narrow forms of economic benefit is most relevant: so-called economies of scale, and economies of standardization” . . . 

“Architects have occasionally been brought in to add some fine-art design allure to this runaway replication, without having much power to challenge it. . . ” 

designers tend to ignore the economy of place. They treat a component of a system as though it were entirely independent of its physical location anywhere in the production process” (bold added).

This idea that economies of scale and standardization have subsumed local realities, resources, and economies is something that resonates strongly with me, as part of the critique that is offered by the lens of a school as an ecosystem is that we must consider local context on the ground when we look at schools, not merely at data dissociated from that context. School policies generally ignore the economies and physical realities of place, and in fact, the nuance that is missing in debates about concepts like “school choice” involves such local context, as can be seen in this study of school choice in Chicago and its relation to geography.

“the economy of differentiation, is also mostly ignored today, with profound consequences. Differentiation creates diversity, which allows more efficient adaptation to varying conditions, as well as enhancing the potential to resist unforeseen problems.” 

“The key point here is not that economies of scale and standardization are necessarily bad in and of themselves. It is that the world has become dangerously dependent on these particular factors in isolation, and built an enormous and dangerously unbalanced industrial civilization around them” (bold added).

I’m glad that the authors inserted this caveat, as economies of scale and standardization can potentially provide access to technologies or medicines to poorer communities. What they stress here is that there is a dire imbalance, and that the result is a dearth of architecture and designed environments that provide the geometric features that promote well-being and resilience.

And we can witness this dearth first-hand when we visit most of our public schools.

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