Elizabeth Chu Richter, FAIA, is the 2015 AIA President
Carl Bower, photographer Elizabeth Chu Richter, FAIA, is the 2015 AIA President

Architects think about materials a lot—as much as they think about budgets, plans, programs, and sites. But there’s another way to think about materials, as in the raw materials of a neighborhood or a community: the people and their sense of place, their pride in what they do and where they live, and the means of producing—and sustaining—a way of life. In thinking about materials in this way, we get closer to a universal definition of resilience.

In February, at AIA headquarters in Washington, D.C., the exhibition “Rebuild by Design” spoke to the efforts of the Architects Foundation (formerly the American Institute of Architects Foundation) to help communities recover from and prepare for disasters. Initiated by President Obama’s Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force and supported by the Rockefeller Foundation, the exhibition showcased 10 innovative approaches to rebuilding communities devastated by Sandy. Each proposal was developed by design professionals working in partnership with citizens struggling not simply to rebuild, but to restore a way of life.

 A few weeks later, I visited New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward. Yes, I saw signs of rebuilding, but, incredibly, after nearly a decade, a full recovery in one of hardest-hit areas in the city seems a long way off. Where rebuilding has taken place, those houses that are now elevated above the flood plain have lost a natural connection to the streets and neighbors. They’re more resilient now, I guess, but at what price?

Which brings me to the idea, advanced in “Rebuild by Design,” that people have an instinctive appetite for building the collective attachment to their place. If the pace of rebuilding in New Orleans was less than what I had hoped to see, the spirit of the people was a source of hope. I met folks who are not only rebuilding structures but who, more importantly, are rebuilding human infrastructure.

I had lunch at Café Reconcile, where at-risk men and women are working to hone their skills in the food service industry. Further down the street, once at-risk youth were working in a bike shop and learning how to repair gears, gaskets, and wheels. I found hope in the work of the Tulane City Center, which is a passionate and compassionate group of students, teachers, architects, designers, and community organizers who are all working together to rebuild a community, one project at a time. This, more than brick and steel, is the true mark of resiliency. The “instinctive appetite” citizens have for all the intangibles that make where they live special out-trumps any design zeitgeist. In the end, the invisible but durable web that binds us to one another and the places we call home is the most enduring material we have to achieve resiliency that truly matters.