The way we design the buildings and public spaces of the future is at a pivotal moment when architects are re-looking at everything.
They are asking some hard questions: can we salvage anything of the old fantasy of erasing boundaries as the world carefully weighs the benefits and dangers of crossing the threshold between private and public space, between indoors and outdoors?
And what happens to our desire for buildings which celebrate wandering, exploring and spontaneous social interaction when the best hope for slowing and containing the coronavirus is the careful regulation of movement and strict observance of social distancing?
As Covid-19 spread from China to the wider world, architects found themselves in the same position as everyone else – shut indoors, nervous about the future and scrambling to remain relevant and necessary as clients fled or postponed major projects.
The shutdown hit the industry hard
Suddenly, the profession was at a crossroads. Was this a time for quick, targeted, pragmatic responses to a built environment that no longer felt safe, or was this a revolutionary moment, a call to rethink everything? In March, news from the architectural world was all about postponed lectures, closed offices and cancelled conferences.
By April, the architecture and design community was flooded with webinars and cyber conferences addressing a range of issues as vast as the profession itself: how to turn convention centres into hospitals and how to make overcrowded hospitals safer. But also, how to “turn your home into a sanctuary” and how to 3D-print face shields at home.
Some thinkers were making big connections (one architect offered “a new design model [that]can curb the environmental destruction that contributes to pandemics”). Others were connecting the pandemic to familiar, favourite issues: “The coronavirus has created an opportunity to improve the pedestrian experience in our cities and towns…”
This was architecture being architecture. The purview of the field is as specific as doorknobs and light switches, and as far-reaching as global transportation infrastructure and communication networks.
The profession is intensely practical, often highly specialised and sometimes maddeningly theoretical, and the sudden, seemingly chaotic burst of responses to the pandemic is simply how it collectively thinks. But there was an urgency driven by more than just the mounting death toll.
Enlightened designers know that our cities need to be dense and connected if we are to avoid the environmental problems of the sprawling mid-century suburb and a car-based culture. Tall buildings, with lift cores, help increase density. Urban life must also be full of interaction and social energy if we are to live happily in proximity. Social stability across the generations requires that we live in fluid, multigenerational communities, integrating rather than isolating or alienating the young, the working-aged and the elderly.
Yet Covid-19 has threatened all of this, not just high-minded ideas about dense, socially diverse, democratically engaged cities, but also the way we inhabit buildings and move through space.
In big cities around the world, people are eyeing each other warily over face masks, moving to the edges of the pavement, letting the lift pass rather than join other passengers in a confined space. Images emerged of ice rinks turned into impromptu morgues.
On the internet we have watched people gather outside the windows of care homes, where their parents and grandparents were dying in record numbers.
They stood unprotected from the elements, putting their hands to windows above them, seeking communication with people they were forbidden to visit. This wasn’t just a social tragedy; it was a mark of architectural failure and a real-time example of how people will spontaneously re-purpose buildings
if those buildings aren’t serving them well.
Meanwhile, hundreds of millions of people, including many architects, were confronting the inadequacies of their own domestic spaces: small apartments clustered around empty event spaces and workout rooms that weren’t safe to use, with laundry facilities available only in the basement. Open-plan suburban houses, with vast interiors, lacked sufficient partitions to keep people with the virus apart from those without it. As weeks of isolation turned into months, and as the fear of a rise in infections grew with the approach of winter, these inadequacies seemed to forge a new consensus, not fully articulated but widely felt: architecture is about rights, about air, about equal access to the necessities of life.
As the pandemic continues, and as architects are emboldened by the growing realisation that this is a transformational moment that could topple old hierarchies, and even capitalism as we know it, they are thinking about the legacy of modernism and its promise to remake the world.
Is it possible that architecture could be broadly political, as it once was, but more effective? Could it undertake projects larger than walkable cities and energy-efficient high-rises? Could it aim for something bigger than the creation of buildings in which we live, work and die, something more like an environment that surrounds us, protects us and inspires us? Could architecture, like the world the virus was threatening, become organic?
The Washington Post
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