Resistance is fertile

Our cities tell us everything we need to know about architecture and resistance.

The Guggenheim museum in New York.
The Guggenheim museum in New York. Photograph: Getty Images.

Our cities tell the tale of architects’ relationship with resistance. In the 17th century, after the Great Fire, Christopher Wren, Robert Hooke and John Evelyn proposed ambitious rebuilding schemes for London. None of these plans was implemented, scuppered by pragmatism, not least because it was impossible to discover the true ownership of land and buildings and there were no means to calculate compensation to put in place compulsory purchase orders.

Much of the City’s old street plan was simply resurrected, modified by fire-preventative measures (such as wider streets and better materials), improved sanitation and the creation of open wharves along the Thames to boost trade. Logistical resistance may have been fatal to master-planning but it proved to be a vital force in the future development of London. By honouring the medieval street pattern, our capital has allowed a chaos and looseness to prevail, which have encouraged its continual evolution.

In 19th-century Paris, there was no such politesse or resistance to title-holders’ rights. The movement of citizens was deliberately restricted by planning to limit the mob’s ability to resist: boulevards were placed over the existing grain of labyrinthine, medieval alleyways to facilitate military movement. Individual buildings became subservient to the wider urban aesthetic with regimented facades. As beautiful as it may be, Haussmann’s plan for the city did not countenance change. Instead, it became the new baseline that Parisians have had to adopt or adapt to ever since: it’s a coherent city but also an irresistible one. Perhaps it is the legacy of Haussmann’s totalitarian move that is being played out in the conservative cultures of Paris today, a city struggling to reconcile itself to the demands of the 21st century.

By contrast, New York’s grid, laid down by the Commissioners’ Plan of 1811, is deceptive in its rigidity. The liberty to defy the grid in the third dimension was the real masterstroke, giving Manhattan one of the great skylines of the world. Occasionally, when the grid is resisted – in cases such as Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim or, more recently, the High Line – a previously unimagined respite from the city is created and the break is exhilarating.

Resistance is built into the architectural discipline and touches on the essence of what design means to me as an architect – that is, to work with resistance by weaving it into the design process, balancing the tension between complexity and intuition.

There is another more literal aspect to resistance embedded in the process of design, in the territory between thinking and making. We make models to test our thinking in three dimensions. Whether it is kneading a piece of plasticine, cutting and gluing card or folding a piece of paper, it is a precious stage in the evolution of an idea. So much can happen at this fragile moment: the scalpel might slip but suggest a cleverer way of dealing with a difficult junction; the search for a material to take up your imagined form can reveal a structural solution; a chance exchange with a colleague at the model-making table might cause the pursuit of a different route. Equally, the banality of an idea might be exposed – but as the confrontation with failure is so visceral, you are driven to start again.

I make this point to counter what I see as the creep of an unchecked evangelism around the advent of 3-D printing, a technology that offers no resistance. In The Craftsman, Richard Sennett writes of the intimate connection between problem-solving and problem-finding, how a designer is willing to risk losing control: “Machines break down when they lose control, whereas people make discoveries, stumble on happy accidents.”

Chris Anderson, author of Makers: the New Industrial Revolution, writes of the liberation that 3-D printers bring: how they turn us all into designers and how complexity now comes at no cost. It may come without economic cost at a small scale but in architecture, if we are not careful, this is at the expense of integrity. Complexity for its own sake is the path to baroque mannerism and lazy thinking. The second you press that button to transmit your computer file to the machine that builds up your design, layer by microscopic layer of resin, you relinquish all control. There is none of the positive resistance that comes from the relationship between the hand and the intellect. The design process stops right there. Your design is printed as imperfectly as it has been conceived but the conceit is the appearance of achievable perfection.        

Resistance is the fuel in the process of design because it forces us to think more deeply and keeps alive the risk of failure. Cities fail and are never perfect because they are the aggregate of imperfect humans. But the most vibrant cities, such as London, are those that harness the benefits of resistance, accept failures and learn from them.

Amande Levete is the principal of the architectural studio AL_A