Acqua Alta

I’ve long been interested in the concept of ‘resilience’ and its potential in architecture. Generally, resilience is defined as the capacity of a system to respond to shock. In physics, the term refers to the elastic properties of a material, and the degree to which that material may return to its initial state. In business and politics, resilience refers to the ability of an organization to respond to unexpected events, to rebound and thrive after failure, or to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances. In architecture, I believe resilience may be a better, smarter model for development than facile ’sustainability,’ as the goal of ’sustainability’ is the maintenance of the status quo, whereas ‘resilience’ assumes change – unexpected, sometimes catastrophic change. In ‘resilient design’ we assume the worst, and prepare for it. The title of this blog refers to a design methodology where systems are pushed past their breaking point – but recover quickly and are stronger for it.

I’m still working out this concept, but I think there’s potential for wide-ranging research on the topic of resilience, and I believe it can be applied across scales – from the nanoscale interactions between particles in the latest material research, to the design and construction of structures to withstand natural disasters or terrorist attacks, even to urban, regional, and global scales. How can cities can be designed to be resilient? In the case of Venice, to be continuously operational, even when inundated by floods?

Acqua Alta” is the occasional Venetian flood, recorded throughout history but now occurring with increasing frequency due to man made interventions in the structure and hydrology of the Venetian lagoon. Historically, the Acqua Alta phenomenon was caused by geographic and celestial factors reinforcing one another (outlined well by Wikipedia), but the construction of a railroad and automobile bridge, and the dredging of a shipping channel and a large industrial port have amplified the effect. The Italian government is working on a large-scale engineering project to control the flow of water in and out of the lagoon (the modestly-titled MOSE project, explained well by this slow-loading page from National Geographic), which – if successful – will save Venice from the recurring floods (but not, we assume, sea level rise or the continued sinking of the Venetian islands – 23cm in the last century).

While the causes and potential solutions of Acqua Alta are fascinating, what interests me most is the way Venice deals with it today, under current conditions. The official website of the Commune of Venezia is a great resource for tourists and locals, assuring all that “Even in high water events Venice is a city suitable for normal living,” and providing water level forecasts, maps of the temporary walkways, and even an online route-planner for Acqua Alta.

The emphasis on the continuing functionality of the city may seem odd to tourists, who may see these recurring floods as a natural disaster, and the temporary paths as a quick-fix. However, these temporary pathways represent nothing less than a complete reconfiguration of the topology of the city, the design of which depends not only on the severity of the flood, but on the locations of major destinations in the city, and the desire for this primarily-tourist-driven economy to continue operations under these conditions. This temporary map represents The Resilient City.

Rather than waiting for magic nanobots to repair the Venetian foundations, or adopting a purposefully cynical approach simply to raise awareness, ‘resilient’ designers should embrace current situations rather than mourning the past, and find immediate, effective solutions rather than holding out for perfect ones.