Towards “Antifragile Urbanism”: Beyond the Fragility of Utopia and the Robustness of Resilience

(published in Studio Magazine on Architecture and Urbanism, Issue # 9 BEYOND )


Humankind should get ready to live in a more plastic and nomadic way. Rapid local and global changes in environment may require unheard of, large scale social transformations.

-  Slavoj Zizek


The Mystical Rebirth

The beginning of this manifesto springs forth from the burial ground of all previous manifestos on urbanism. This lofty claim may seem as a reincarnation of Tomasso Marinetti’s arrogance, quite the avant-garde who exactly 100 years ago led the Italian Futurist movement. Au contraire! while I do borrow the rant-like passion of many modernist unfurling a range of manifestos over the last century, so categorically enshrined in Ulrich Conrad’s book Programs and Manifestos on the 20-th Century Architecture, the thesis I present here is not a romantic claim to some higher truth regarding how cities should be, nor this manifesto is a collection of “rational” metric-based resilience manual being produced now-a-days like ones such as the City Resilience Framework by the Rockefeller Foundation and Arup. Whatever happened to “Whatever Happened to urbanism”, the passionate call Rem Koolhaas made in 1995 to “…imagine 1,001 other concepts of the city”…? Even though everyday “this-city” and “that-city” do populate our media with ever astounding picturesqueness appealing to our imagination and with plethora of rational struts holding its narrative, what I hope to show by the end of this essay is that conceptions of these city has not been grounded on any epistemologically different framework as necessary for our times. Rather the ghosts of modernity (and post-modernity) have been re-shrouded, cloaked in neomanic forms that provide spectacle yet are not any different substance-wise. This is no mere accident, this is deeply emblematic of how we think about urbanity, but even before that how we think about ourselves. The narrative of humanity has to be re-phrased, the past has to be made malleable, and the present scrutinized from the exterior and interior to begin thinking about urbanism that reflects the cumulative advancement of human thought and wisdom. This process of radically re-situating urbanism is no longer a luxury but rather an existential necessity to re-think our path towards what is to be the “Urban Century”. This manifesto will place the concept of antifragility at the core of such a re-situational process, the “mystical rebirth” of urbanism (borrowing the term from Superstudio’s 12 Cautionary Tales for Christmas, a scathing critical rendition of urbanism unfolding during high modernism). Even a cursory glance around the world reveals that we have been exceptionally successful in realizing the 12 dystopias described therein.

Before going any further, one must be made aware that there are certain typological deviations, not as stylistic innovation but rather to redefine the role of manifestos in the first place. Manifestos have failed so far because they were ego-driven impressionistic analysis and romanticized prophetic theories. This re-oriented manifesto shall avoid the allure of any such definitions and not cast urbanism as a product, a theoretical treatise nor a set of discrete principles that can be replicated but rather shall aim to create a ground to bring in conceptual change allowing radical reflections and formations of new research agenda, to foster behavioral changes for individual agents of the built environment and to incept an unpredictable non-linear sequence of events that culminate towards the dissemination of the idea of antifragility and aid the evolution of urbanism in its light. The disjunction and the ambiguity of the narrative are intentional and necessary. There is no claim to ‘truth’ made here, just intimations at what would be beneficial. It is mutable, open to further tinkering, thereby benefiting from any criticism aimed at it; unlike the demagogic proclamations of the last century. Rather, this manifesto is a series of beginnings, it is just an opening act.


What characterizes our “Urban Century”?

To arrive at possibilities of a future urbanism, one must unapologetically characterize what defines the present and what are the conditions that are forming the world of tomorrow. The world is undergoing rapid change and the changes themselves are accelerating. The evolution of us as organisms and our interaction with the environment can be said to be in a telescopic evolution, each stage ever faster than the one before - two billion years for life, six million years for the hominid, 100,000 years for mankind, 10000 years for agricultural revolution, 400 years for scientific revolution, 150 years for industrial revolution, and now the information age in the last 30. Such acceleration has changed our relationship with the environment and the age of the Anthropocene is set to be one with ever more unpredictable events. Even if Elizabeth Colbert's hypothesis of the extinction is thought of as the most radical of the effects, there is no denial that our zeitgeist will be shaped by crisis. Having built a networked and globalized world, we have exponentially increased our vulnerability to such events as each interdependence increases the relational effect. From the perspective of climate change, “mass migration, refugees and conflict, abandoned cities, food shortages, failed nations, human-induced disasters, mass deaths” will become more common. 2014 saw a record number of weather anomalies, temperature record broken across the globe, wilder hurricane season, intensification of floods, rain events, droughts and other such natural disasters.

Adding to these natural disasters, the debt-based monetary system is poised for a debacle resulting in possible economic collapse– a giant Ponzi scheme in play held up by fiat currency that operates at the behest of multinational banks. The imperialist agenda to secure resources and to establish operational territories for neo-liberal expansion of corporate interests have resulted in social injustice of catastrophic levels. Following Thomas Picketty’s recent conclusion, one can safely posit that capitalism on steroids have entrenched wealth in the hands of the few and has bred income inequality all over the world as Chicago school economics have become the norm in most parts of the world. Such repression is a great recipe for social resistance and mass movements resulting in further chaos.

Borrowing Martin Heidegger’s concept, one can say nature has been enframed as a resource only to be capitalized and extracted and environmental exploitation and degradation has accelerated ecological catastrophes. Destruction of habitat resulting in extinction of species can change food chains in a way that cannot be modelled just as there are too may variable to compute in an intricately connected ecosystem. Just the radical reduction in honeybee numbers is alarming for successful pollination and could hamper food production in unintelligible ways.

Combining all these factors in creating a disorder scenario and to identify what happens seems to be the logical step, but therein lies the rub. Each of these events has the capacity to throw any future predictions off at every scale. The way each of these disorders would unfurl and affect may be simulated if isolated from the others, but as with any complex system, their effect will be interdependent and relational and therefore beyond the scope of any predictive model. Just as the weather cannot be predicted more than a few days before, we are at loss if asked to compute the probability of such events. One must understand it is not due to lack of computational power but rather due to non-linear responses.    

Urbanism does not operate in an isolated world free from these events but rather looking at the history of the world, one would see urbanism has always been shaped by these unpredictable, large scale rare events, directly or indirectly. We have a tendency to define a narrative where role of random events are minimized and our own agency is overrated, we suffer heavily from a post-rationalization bias. The fate of London after the plague of 1666, of Chicago after the fire of 1871 or of New Orleans after Katrina in 2005 changed the course of their history. Sandy showed how vulnerable New York was. Adrian Lahoud in the AD issue of Post-Traumatic Urbanism postulates that in our age operating in post-traumatic landscape will become the norm.

How to operate in such an age of uncertainty? Rem Koolhaas rightly pointed in this direction when he stated that, “if there is to be a new urbanism, it will not be based on the twin fantasies of order and omnipotence; it will be the staging of uncertainty; . Alas, as succinct his analysis was throughout the essay, (rightly characterizing the death of utopia and busting the myth of the modernist’s triumphant claims), when it came to provide directions for ways to operate with uncertainty, he fell into messianic calls and allegorical verbiage.

How to think of an urbanism that is not based on prediction on how the future will be? How to think beyond utopia that created a grand narrative, which it couldn’t follow through just because setting up the idyllic, closed, definitive image was in itself the suicidal mistake for each utopia? How to urbanistically operate in a world brimming with disorder? Our answer so far has been a move from sustainability to resilience, which is a step in the right direction, but as must be shown, is not enough. We want to prevail through disasters and become better but how? It is here that we turn to antifragility.


Introducing Antifragility as a conceptual tool

Even though a ubiquitous phenomenon, antifragility has been unnamed therefore outside of conceptual exploitation until recently. The antifragile benefits from exposure to disorder/ shock/trauma whereas the resilient absorbs the shock, resists succumbing to it but does not get better. Coined by Nassim Taleb in a 2013 book by the same name, antifragile is the quintessential property of not just surviving but gaining from disorder. If urbanism is to experience disorder/ trauma, then we must think of an urbanism that gains from the exposure to the randomness/disorder/trauma. To illustrate the concept of antifragility, it would be best to take a leaf out of Taleb’s book and use Greek mythological creatures to expound the phenomenon. Phoenix, the bird that is reborn from its ashes if killed, is resilient to disorder/random events that may harm it. It restore to its previous state but does not gain from its exposure to harm. Phoenix is resilient to stress. On the other hand, Hydra is an aquatic creature that has many heads. When one of its head gets chopped, two grow in its place. It is antifragile, as exposure to negative events is beneficial to it. Fragility implies more to lose, more downside than upside in case of disorder. Antifragility implies more to gain, more upside than downside when exposed to disorder. Of course, things can be antifragile up to a certain limit of stress. This is the phenomenon at work when exposed to stress, our muscles break down but regenerate anticipating more stress hence gets stronger. This is the concept that is caught in the words by Nietzsche – “that which does not kill us makes us stronger”.

We must chart a path where we move beyond resilience, where we just do not meekly adjust to chaos or disorder but current exigencies demand that we create an urbanism with regenerative capabilities that uses its exposure to disorder to benefit from such exposure. 

When things are fragile, they depend on things following an exact planned route in time, as any random event will upset the utopic condition and will be harmful. On the other hand, the antifragile does not care about deviations, because it can benefit from exposure to the deviation / disorder. We cannot predict disorder, but we can innovate how our systems behave when exposed to disorder, and such process of anticipation of disorder allows us to incorporate features into the design that only come alive / seem very wise during the disorder. The most important feature of antifragility is optionality. One must be in a state where one can oscillate between options, switch between roles depending on the external condition. Optionality can be developed through embedding functional redundancy in a system. From an urbanistic point of view, this could mean an urban park may be an open air civic center hosting plethora of urban function but during rain events due to a priori anticipation of such an event, the park becomes a retention pond providing ecological benefits. This embedding of multiple narratives within one structure allows the overall urbanity to have layers of functionality that are fluidic in nature and oscillates between them based on the state of order/disorder. The idea is to move away from a static depiction towards a multitude of presence. There is option here to explore antifragility as a foray into structuring a pluriversal existence.

Rather than the path of average, antifragile urbanism becomes host to oppositional plays, of extreme ends of the spectrum. It becomes the landscape of co-existence of the city and the rurality, the civic and the ecological, the poetic and the pragmatic, the Apollonian and the Dionysian, reason and emotion, the western and eastern, the object and the field, the wave and the particle. Operating simultaneously at both ends through this bi-modal strategy is one way to achieve antifragility. Along the spectrum of density, urbanism can become dense centers, sparse rurality within the same framework and multiple existence within that. This allows for the urbanism to shift according to outside pressure/shock.

One must understand that antifragility is a property, hence a metric of urbanism. This is not conceptualized as one more stylistic urbanism to add to the growing list of urbanisms. Jonathan Burnett in a recent article charts 60 urbanisms currently having currency within the discipline. Each one of them can be tested against a potential disorder and a metric can be developed to see where that particular urbanism falls in relation to that disaster/trauma. Antifragility is a typological condition that can be considered a foundation property that needs to pervade in each urbanistic condition.

A very similar concept has been identified and empirically proven in psychology called Post-traumatic growth - an emerging field of psychological research which illustrates that a wide range of traumatic events—from illness, divorce, separation, assault, natural disasters, and terrorism—can act as catalysts for positive change. Boldly challenging the orthodox wisdom about trauma and its aftermath, psychologist Dr. Stephen Joseph demonstrates that rather than ruining one’s life, a catastrophic event can actually improve it (provided it doesn’t kill you, antifragility only works within a certain stress limit).

Utopia has always been fragile, swept away at first signs of chaos, only working if every assumption made during the design process holds true for the rest of time. It is time to critically see our works and ideas in this light. Fragile-robust-antifragile (called the Triad by Taleb) operates as a spectrum where things within a domain fall along the lines based on its behavior when exposed to disorder.

We are fast approaching a global condition where very soon we might not be in a position to care which urbanism is more “true”/ideal/correct/well theorized/respected/awarded but rather all it would matter is whether it breaks (fragile) or survives (resilient) or thrives (antifragile) when exposed to disorder/trauma.

Time has come to establish a new metric that factors in the real life payoff as opposed to theoretical correctness/utopicness. All utopias are inherently iatrogenic and all ideologies are fragile by definition. It is time to recast urbanism with a sense of humane religiosity and let us take a doxastic commitment to be skeptical of dogma/theory and to tinker this process of recasting urbanism aggressively through design research, teaching and practice.  Time has come to accept ecological rationality over the rational choice theory. Time has come to burn the notion of the rational man by acknowledging our own fallibility and our biases. Let us step outside the closure of false certainty, outside the reductionist worldview that makes sense. Let us take a leap into the mystery of the unknowable and yet come out on top of whatever may lie ahead. Away from an epistemology of true/false, we must move towards an epistemology that measures survivability. Time has come to acknowledge that a majority of urbanistic visions in the last century has failed precisely because they could not factor in the random events, they lacked anticipation of future randomness and rigidness of the utopia resulted in the demise of their idea. In stark contrast to it, antifragile urbanism is fractal in nature, one of open-endedness, of potentialities that can change, of anticipating changes beforehand, urbanism that loves randomness and stressors, one that is driven by virtues rather than principles, encourages bricolage/tinkering, encourages maximal bottom-up processes and minimal top down interventions. It is one driven by desires, more by acts of omission than by acts of commission, its practices are implemented by heuristic regulations that mutate as needed when applied to the site rather than a rigid code of regulations. Rather than relying on knowledge of future events, antifragile urbanism is about being free from random events and benefitting if one does happen. Let us be urban stoics.


The task ahead: exploring directions and potentialities in light of antifragility

The concept of antifragility is too broad to be condensed into the limitation of the essay, leaving no choice but to scheme potential ideas and directions rather than delve deep into more concretized aspects of it. For the sake of the manifesto, such ruminations do serve the purpose of stirring thoughts. There are certain dispositions entrenched that will have to be re-conceptualized for the reconstruction of the narrative in light of antifragility. Urbanism has to become one and the many at once. This existence of multiple phenomenon within one system is where other disciplines are arriving at as well. There is a consilience between how concepts are organized across disciplines. It is high time for urbanism to break outside of disciplinary mode and be informed and transcend into other disciplines. Apart from the more orthodox disciplines such as architecture, landscape, urban planning, urbanism has the potential and the necessity to transcend disciplinary territories starting with but not limited to ecology, psychology, law, evolutionary biology, complexity science etc. This self-discovery as a polymathic meta-discipline is an act of antifragility for urbanism itself.

Alejandro Aravena, curator of the Venice Biannale 2016, recently put this urge in his own words so eloquently: "As architects, we are living at a time of shifting paradigms. [...] It’s why I’m so interested in how architects and urban planners engage with other fields." He succinctly ended his article with ... "the battle for a better built environment is neither a tantrum nor a romantic crusade." Hence, beyond the manifestos of the 20th century, I end the one for the 21st with a question/a provocation/a seed of rumination. What type of architecture, landscape and infrastructure does such urbanism demand? What are the processes, the products, the entanglements, the form, the content, the inner workings, the lamentations, the drawings, the verbiage, the operatives of an urbanism that is antifragile?



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A MANIFESTATION OF SEPARATION : Against the Wall around Kahn's National Assembly in Dhaka