Adaptive Architecture

The Economist on the London bombings:

No city… can stop terrorists altogether. What can be said, though, is that terrorists are unable to stop cities, either. Perhaps an army, launching wave after wave of attacks, might succeed in doing so, especially if it were to deploy biological, chemical or nuclear weapons. Short of that, cities will always bounce back quickly, after the initial shock. They are resilient organisms, with powerful social and economic reasons to shrug off terrorism.

But of course, cities themselves don’t bounce back or change at all. The adaptability of a city lies in the fact that physically, it’s no more than a structure. The composition of the city, the orgamism of the quote above, is the made up of the people, social networks, experiences, and organisation that hang on the physical framework of a densely populated space.

In How Buildings Learn, Stewart Brand notes that family homes can easily adapt to the needs of those living in them - rooms can be swapped, renovated, and re-used. Institutional buildings, on the other hand, have great difficulty in changing their function after they have been designed. They can’t adapt easily because their function is too rigidly written into their structure. Form follows function, but it should also be ready to keep up with function. Brian Eno on the appeal of adaptability:

An important aspect of design is the degree to which the object involves you in its own completion. Some work invites you into itself by not offering a finished, glossy, one-reading-only surface. This is what makes old buildings interesting to me.

This is also Jeff Tweedy’s approach to art:

I believe 50 percent of art is the perception of the listener… as an artist all you’re really doing is hopefully giving people the raw material to think here something and make something out of it. I always think about how the world made something just incredibly beautiful out of Elvis Presley that he could have never in a million years intended. The intent of the author, the artist, the writer is really once it’s done your involvement is finished.

It’s also there in Jane Jacobs’ community-led, bottom-up approach to city planning, and Steven Johnson’s swarmlike collaberative filtering to achieve the emergence of optimium performance.

This way of thinking about design applies to lots of other stuff too - programmers who write reusable, modular code; copyright, and the freedom to remix content; open source and the ability to branch developments; open-ended, free-roaming video games; templates, themes and plugins for blogs; digital rights management and proprietary formats; mobile phone covers and ringtones; evolution.

— 06 Aug 2005