Disease has often driven change in architecture and design. Cities cleared slums and opened up public spaces in response to the bubonic plague, and widened boulevards and added indoor plumbing due to yellow fever and cholera. The open-air sanitariums designed to treat tuberculosis and other pandemics inspired the streamlined look of modernist buildings and minimalist furniture, which leaves few places for dirt and germs to hide.
Now, as the COVID-19 crisis forces us to adapt where we live, work, eat, exercise and unwind, architects are pondering how those changes might influence the next generation of homes, offices and other buildings.
“The world will change,” says Natasha Sandmeier, an adjunct assistant professor of architecture and urban design at the UCLA School of the Arts and Architecture. “What we have to try to preserve in the face of this transformation, increased isolation and reduced contact, is community and humanity.”
In a virtual roundtable discussion, Sandmeier and professors Dana Cuff and Greg Lynn weigh in on how the practice may evolve in the aftermath of the pandemic. Some of their answers have been edited slightly.
How might architecture and design change as a result of people’s heightened fear of infection?
Cuff: Historian Beatriz Colomina wrote about how tuberculosis shaped a clean, white, sun-filled, open-air modern architecture. With the current pandemic, a renewed emphasis on ventilation will be visible in the architectural form but also hidden in its mechanical systems.
All kind of questions about density are being raised now, particularly for places where people are most vulnerable: those living in nursing homes, on the streets, in overcrowded households or in shelters, and people working in essential industries like the food supply chain. With public sector support, their well-being can be prioritized. That would start with safe outdoor spaces and adequate internal space.
Sandmeier: Health and wellness have often been sacrificed in the face of personal, political, economic or social desires. The Grenfell Tower [the London residential high rise that was destroyed in a 2017 fire] is proof of the worst of these sacrifices, and as dense housing blocks become potential virus hotspots, it’s clear that broad planning policies will be crucial to address the vastly under-acknowledged needs to curtail the spread of illness, loneliness and ghettoization.
One can only hope that solutions will embrace the spirit of Moretti’s quirky and inventive Il Girasole (“The Sunflower”), an utterly bonkers house that literally rotates with the sun on giant tracks, or the empathetic design of many Maggie’s Centre projects around the world that support the work of delivering free emotional, practical and social support to those with cancer.
Lynn: Hygiene certainly has an aesthetic and it could be that a new hygienic style could emerge. Often, fear and crisis shines a light on things that already exist and suddenly gives them a reason to be broadly adopted.
People will be more willing to give away their location, health state, activities, movements and data more than they already are. So sharing data and information on the healthiness of places we move through and dwell in may be more prevalent. We will want to know when we are in spaces that have higher and lower risk. The way we wear masks in “public” but not in “safe” spaces already can be informed by data and statistics.
How will our workplaces adapt to this new reality? Is the open-plan office dead?
Lynn: Open plan may be healthier than we expect — I do not know the data that would tell us — but co-working spaces are dying rapidly. Their business model had fundamental business flaws and now, under the stress of fear of sharing, these companies are in trouble and many will not survive.
Will the freedom from ownership and maintenance and the cost savings be worth sharing an environment with a much higher volume of strangers? This has yet to be seen. We are closing the “communal” kitchen, carbonated beverage station, espresso machine and all places where food and drinks are shared in the short term as we get ready to get back to work in the near future.
Cuff: The open-plan office is not dead by any means. It will be more flexibly used in the future: Rather than packing people shoulder to shoulder, a good portion of people will work from home. Those who intermittently come to the office will have enough space to work and meet with a feeling of safety.
I think the small conference rooms that lined the periphery of the open plan office are more likely to need transformation, like better ventilation or the ability to enlarge any meeting space by opening up flexible room dividers or sliding partition walls. The size of the room will be critically linked to the size of the meeting.
Sandmeier: A priority should be securing the safety and health of those workers and students who don’t have the luxury of working comfortably from home, or their choice of work environments. My hope is that we, as architects, insert ourselves as authors of the less glamorous, less photogenic, but no-less-essential spaces and narratives of the kitchens, abattoirs, factory-line environments, medical and science labs, prisons and social-work spaces that are the true drivers of our reality.
Imagine a world in which those spaces are foregrounded in our culture and media landscapes! It would fundamentally transform the ways in which architecture is talked about, taught and practiced.
And how might home design change?
Cuff: Home design for most people would best change by becoming more easily ventilated, with some private outdoor space like a garden or balcony, and to include features that allow the occupant to transform it over the course of a day.
In the 40s, architects like Gregory Ain made small houses flexible so that spaces could adapt to the different needs of different households at different times of the day. If you look at his Modernique Homes in Mar Vista, Los Angeles, you’ll find a room adjacent to the living room that can be converted with a sliding partition into a bedroom at night, or opened as a home office in the day. The kitchen also has a sliding partition that blocked views from the living room or opened to make a breakfast counter. It would help, especially in small apartments and houses, to have nooks where kids can study or attend online classes during the day that could be used for other purposes on the weekends and evenings.
Sandmeier: We are running four Zoom sessions on any given day in our household. Acoustic isolation has become a real issue — I’ve found myself wanting to mute the humans in my space rather than on my screen. But the thought of maintaining privacy and acoustic isolation in a two-bed apartment occupied by more than four people is a very real situation shared by many today, and one that will require innovative responses by both architects and furniture designers.
It’s the denser and less privileged spaces where our attention and innovation should be directed to address the need for temporary office and learning environments. My son’s response of building a new fort every day for his classroom is likely not a long-term solution to many, but that desire to appropriate and quickly pivot is where we all want to be headed in order to support as broad a population as possible. More home offices, outdoor spaces, privacy, community? Yes, yes, yes, yes! But keep in mind the privilege involved in asking for and receiving those things.
Lynn: Home design has changed radically with the emergence of Airbnb — but like co-working spaces, this is another social and financial experiment that is being tested by pandemic times.
Home improvement is the only in-store retail sector that has been growing the last couple of years, and the time and investment in a primary residence will likely continue to increase and accelerate. People will travel less for pleasure and focus more on their local quality of life with a focus on dwellings. Outdoor space and fresh air with daylight are perceived as lifestyle-enhancing and may become more desirable.
Will we see design changes that help people avoid transmitting germs — for example on high-touch surfaces in public spaces?
Sandmeier: Absolutely. That need to be hands-free first became obvious to me in March, when I watched five people use the self-serve checkouts at a CVS. Watching the contact chain from machine to bank card to phone to pocket to eyeglasses to machine to bag to car was to see the broader urban implications of these contact moments.
In workspaces, the bottlenecks of the elevator, stairs, entryways, bathrooms and door handles are where we encounter so many opportunities for germ transmission. How we address those contact points is going to be crucial.
Cuff: Anything with a public “hands-on” feature, from door handles to crosswalk buttons, is going to be redesigned to avoid contact. Digital solutions are already available that will work in many cases, though it will require civic investment. But this is certain to run into conflict with accessibility features, like the grab-bar that helps someone get into a bus.
Do you expect changes in how movie theaters, concert venues, sports stadiums and other large venues are designed?
Cuff: That is one of the most important but most difficult design and community issues we’ll face. If, as proposed by some epidemiologists, we are facing a new normal that requires living with viral threats that will rise and subside, our collective sphere and shared public life are endangered. Large enclosed gathering spaces, like theaters, airplanes or sports arenas may not feel safe unless there is adequate social distancing, personal protective gear and thermal testing.
If we are all sitting six feet apart with masks, it is going to be tough to maintain that cosmopolitan atmosphere of casual interaction with strangers. I see this as the most important challenge facing designers, who will need to collaborate with civic leaders, community partners and planners to build spaces and events where our common ground is foremost. In a pandemic, it’s our collective sense of shared interests that will get us through, and our built environment can help make that possible.