MVRDV - Without beauty and wonder no resilience strategy can be considered successful

Without beauty and wonder no resilience strategy can be considered successful


By Kristina Knauf

MVRDV has been driving sustainable design by merging density with nature since its beginnings in the early 1990s, influenced by the era’s wave of digital innovation. In the 2020s, we are at the dawn of a new wave of innovation that will merge technology with the built environment. Now is the moment to rethink our lifestyle in the face of the mounting impacts of climate change by leveraging societal change and new technologies. Expanding upon MVRDV’s roots, we are accelerating our contribution to the Sustainable Development Goals of the UN by designing places that people find wonderful, merging innovative technologies with optimistic strategies for resilient communities and long-term sustainable thinking in our quest to create daring and durable designs for an optimistic future. 

Our resilience work leverages MVRDV’s unique strength for disruptive, data-driven, interactive designs. These abilities enable us to create strategies and urban environments that empower communities and leaders to respond to the exacerbating symptoms of our old lifestyle with a wonderful future in mind.

Principle 1: Enabling urban life in symbiosis with natural systems. The design of Chengdu Sky Valley works in harmony with the landscape to preserve agricultural valleys to create an 'agritech' campus.


Everything is sustainability?

Sustainability, resilience, innovation – aren’t they all just words to describe the desire for a “change for the better”? As interrelated as they are and need to be, there are clear differences:

Sustainability recognises the negative impact that humans have had on the planet and imagines a fundamentally different lifestyle. It tackles the causes of our negative impact on the planet.

While we are working to achieve a sustainable lifestyle, the symptoms of our imbalance with the planet are becoming exacerbated. In the decades to come, urban environments and communities globally are facing increasing climate shocks, and typically it is the communities that are already vulnerable and disadvantaged at the highest risk. Therefore, parallel to developing models for sustainability, it is an indispensable necessity to build resilience. Resilience supports communities in adapting to the consequences of our unsustainable lifestyle.

Innovation has always been a part of human history. The upcoming global wave of technological innovation will change the way we live and interact once again, merging cyber networks with physical networks. Understanding the negative impacts of previous human innovations, the next wave can offer us the tools to imagine and realize truly symbiotic future realities for our life on this planet.

Principle 2: Concisely analysing & interpreting complex systems. In our Eindhoven Supervision study, our integral vision takes into account the interlinked underlying systems and addresses them with a simple set of quality principles summarizing the vision.  


MVRDV combines the fields of technological innovation, sustainability, and resilience to create daring designs and visions that make optimistic contributions to the Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations. In our projects, we inspire people to imagine and create, with us and all stakeholders, a wonderful future by addressing the three pillars to enable and accelerate the transition towards a truly symbiotic lifestyle:

  • Tackle the causes of our negative impact: imagine a sustainable lifestyle
  • Respond to the symptoms: enable wonderful resilience
  • Leverage innovative technologies: develop tools with our in-house tech specialists MVRDV NEXT to interact, visualize, and communicate the impact

Principle 3: Stimulating social & fun engagement processes. In Almere Oosterwold, residents have the freedom to design what they want, the responsibility to work as part of the community, and the tools required to empower their vision. Image © Ossip van Duivenbode


The need for wonderful resilience

Building resilience is often seen as a challenge of problem-solving using systemic technical and regulatory solutions that operate on a different scale to people’s everyday experiences. While this pragmatic method of planning goes some way to incorporate basic human needs, it often considers people’s desires as an unaffordable luxury in the eyes of an austere future.

However, resilience needs commitment to succeed on a broad scale. Commitment is fuelled by hope and love rather than logic. The challenge in creating resilience is therefore to interpret the desires, cultural habits, hopes, and dreams of people whose cooperation and commitment are essential to making long-term adaptation successful.

For this reason, MVRDV uses “beauty and wonder” as provocative qualities to spark and prolong the will to change. We paint unexpected and hopeful future perspectives for and with the stakeholders and communities we work with. We challenge and excite their imagination, stoking the fires of the collective force needed to enable long-term adaptation and transition towards a wonderful future.

Principle 4: Adding daring robustness. In Future Towers, “empty” spaces required for potential emergencies are adapted to offer improved quality of life in daily routines. Image © Ossip van Duivenbode 


MVRDV’s 6 principles for building resilience

The backbone of MVRDV’s resilience strategy is to connect and transform vulnerabilities into drivers for optimistic, robust and daring designs that work in concert with nature and communities: we turn flooding into spectacle; evacuation procedures into new mobility offers, seismic issues into structures that can bear a park, and barriers into a multitude of connections. We base our designs on six principles that combine MVRDV’s talent for “wonder” with actions needed for resilience:

  1. Enabling urban life in symbiosis with natural systems
    Resilience is often regarded as the act of “giving space to nature”. This holds the danger of continuing “business as usual” elsewhere, often relocating and possibly worsening “the problems” in the long run. A shift of mindset is needed when looking at the interaction of human life and nature.  Rather than shying away from vulnerabilities, our designs create a symbiosis of human life with vulnerable areas, reconciling the built and natural environments.
  2. Concisely analysing & interpreting complex systems
    As resilience concerns all urban systems, truly resilient solutions can only be found in the in-between rather than each separate field. The complexity of this can be overwhelming and paralyzing, leading to inaction. To ease the dialogue and process of finding solutions, it is necessary to distil and communicate simple messages about the complex underlying conditions. MVRDV facilitates this overview. We interpret and communicate complex conditions in a simple way. This helps us to ask “disruptive questions” and distil the needs of various stakeholders and systems into straightforward spatial strategies and designs that spark curiosity and inspire collective action to build resilience.
  3. Stimulating social & fun engagement processes
    Resilience needs awareness. But, above all, it needs stamina in collective action. Shared joy, easy tools and empowering conversations can fuel long-term commitment. Therefore, MVRDV builds resilience by stimulating social & fun processes. For MVRDV, resilient design is an ongoing event. We work proactively with communities and stakeholders, using engaging interactive techniques to provide communities with the knowledge and tools to act, both individually and collectively, to shape their future.
  4. Adding daring robustness
    Adaptation to changing conditions and especially disaster response needs space that might seem superfluous in daily life. Spatial buffers in our cities and buildings are not a luxury but an essential. Highlighting, equipping, and designing them thoroughly as integral assets rather than a residual space fosters preparedness and a sense of orientation and calm in emergency situations, as well as improving overall living quality. Therefore, MVRDV designs robust frameworks that include buffer space and alternative routes to mitigate shocks and stresses. We celebrate this “free space” as a “we space”, designing a comfortable, functional, and intriguing “emptiness” that allows for a multitude of uses and continuous adaptation.
  5. Making adaptation desirable
    A resilient city needs constant adaptation. Our living environments, however, are often composed of standardized, anonymous structures. They rarely allow individual identities to manifest and thus limit mental ownership and the motivation to invest in optimizing them. People’s preference for custom-made habitats is evident, but often only accomplished at a small scale. To stimulate enthusiasm for collective transformation in dense urban environments, we need to make the users love their space AND love their neighbours. We need to combine structural flexibility with customization, for the individual as well as the community. We need to make flexibility attractive. Therefore, MVRDV develops structures that can continually adapt to collective needs and individual desires.
  6. Seeking win-win outcomes on all levels & scales
    Resilience does not consider boundaries. In order to overcome scales, consensus is needed. This can only be reached if resilience actions have ubiquitous benefits for all scales and stakeholders –a universal outcome of “no regrets”. Therefore, MVRDV’s resilience approach encompasses designing the big and the small at the same time, informing our integral strategies for tomorrow from a far-future perspective, and developing solutions that serve the apparent and as-yet-unknown needs of all possible stakeholders.

Principle 5: Making adaptation desirable. The (W)ego research conducted by The Why Factory explores the potentials of negotiation in a dense context. Image © The Why Factory


MVRDV’s wonderfully resilient buildings and communities

MVRDV uses design projects to advance this methodology in practice, exploring, for example, new forms of governance, innovative building systems, urban greening, and living with water under real life conditions and with a multitude of stakeholders. Demonstrating this are the many exemplary urban and architectural resilience projects we have worked on, which includes among others: Resilient by Design, Too Little+Too Much, Eindhoven Supervision, Tainan Spring, Silodam, (W)ego, Future Towers, Almere Oosterwold, Bastide Niel, La Grande Mosaïque, The Sun Flower Islands, Depot Boijmans Van Beuningen, Overschild, Barapullah Springs, Thessaloniki Port and our Future Mobility studies.

In a case study report presented by MVRDV during the 56th ISOCARP World Planning Congress in Doha, we examine two MVRDV projects side by side: Bastide Niel, a 35-hectare masterplan for a brownfield transformation currently in development in Bordeaux, France, and Resilient by Design, a regional resilience strategy for the San Francisco Bay Area. Their comparison demonstrates how our six-principles for “wonderful resilience” can incite and accelerate the cultural shift required to build resilience.

Principle 6: Seeking win-win outcomes on all levels & scales. In our Resilient By Design proposal, we developed a flexible toolbox for San Mateo which helps the local community by revitalising public spaces that collect and connect people and water. 


How do we accelerate towards a happy, sustainable future?

Our quest to build resilience is in constant development and needs to accelerate, as it is a crucial ingredient of MVRDV’s sustainability approach and ambition to contribute to the Sustainable Development Goals of the UN.

To this end, we are establishing an MVRDV sustainability database that includes a “resilience scoreboard” to evaluate and drive our own projects’ resilience. Hand in hand with our internal taskforces – “MVRDV Planet” for sustainable lifestyle and “MVRDV NEXT” for new experimental technologies – our Resilience team is exploring digital methods and developing participatory tools and design strategies for resilience that enable urban environments and their communities to adapt to climate change. We make potential benefits of our resilient designs measurable and visible in surprising ways, supporting municipalities and other stakeholders in finding new, feasible approaches to resilience planning and building.

Our approach is constantly developing, informed by our partnerships with experts, discussions developed through exhibitions, lectures, workshops, and more, and of course by the ever-changing challenges the world faces. Gradually applying our six resilience principles in each project, we continuously experiment with solutions for resilient designs, building commitment and empowering collective climate action towards a beautiful and wonderful future on our planet.