On Hold

Adapting to a new collective future

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Growing up, my mother had a collection of one-liners designed to dispel household conflict quickly. One of the most effective was her response to any expressions of boredom: “You make your own good time.” During the period of confinement over the past several weeks, this sentence has come to my mind more than once.

As the pandemic drags on we have all been “making our own good times” as best we can. One thing is very clear: inventing good times in the comfort of our homes has nothing to do with trying to stay safe in the crowded informal settlements of Rio de Janeiro or Mumbai, or the homeless community in Los Angeles.

The outbreak of COVID-19 has brought into focus both the excesses and the deficiencies of contemporary society. Our tendency to be high on convenience and low on a long-term vision to resolve the consequences of our actions has brought the planet to the breaking point. Now with the explosion of the pandemic we have been forced to see how fragile the world we have constructed really is.

We have been reminded in a vivid and unexpected way that our choices are not entirely open-ended because we are running out of time. Even so, now that we have been forced to slow down and put our fast-paced lives “on hold,” we have observed the exuberance with which nature has returned during the last few weeks—when we have been conspicuously absent—and this can only give us hope that perhaps there is still time.

We have observed how the spaces for people have been strangely empty and while the photos of beloved cities such as Venice, New York and Buenos Aires have a certain haunting beauty about them, at the same time they’ve filled us with nostalgia and sadness. Being the decidedly social animals, we are has made it very difficult for us to accept a world where there are museums without visitors, shops without clients, or playgrounds without kids.

Williamsburg, NY, 2018.
A typical pre-coronavirus Saturday afternoon in Williamsburg, NY, 2018. Photo © Diane Gray

Time will tell if we will come roaring back with business as usual as the stay-at-home restrictions ease up and we confront the economic consequences. But as we move forward from one “phase” to another—and sometimes backwards again—in an attempt to establish an everyday rhythm that resembles our former lives, maybe we can redefine normalcy in the context of these extraordinary observations that COVID-19 has presented us. Maybe if this healthcare crisis can teach us anything, it will be the need to maintain a balance between public space and private space; between the built space and the natural space.

As we continue this process, architects must respond by insisting on putting the well-being of people at the center of their concerns; putting into practice ideas that have been emerging for some time now. This is especially so in terms of housing, as well as the scenarios for collective life such as schools, hospitals and public spaces.

The changing collective space

In terms of education, it has been remarkable to see the rapid and efficient transition to online systems. From kindergarten to university students, the adaptation has allowed for flexibility and continuance of the academic year. Most probably the future will be a combination of remote and in-person learning. But it’s quite clear that schools are irreplaceable as the places that encourage social interaction and create a sense of community. New spatial models that emphasize the relationship between the classrooms and open spaces will certainly be concepts that will continue to be explored in the future. The classroom-patio unit can constitute a different type of school where natural light and ventilation are integral elements of the design.

Interest in the importance of healthcare design has been heightened over the last few weeks. The outbreak of COVID-19 has encouraged us to reconsider the characteristics that hospitals of the future should have. Spatial flexibility is essential and again, natural light and ventilation and the introduction of green spaces are fundamental. This is especially true in terms of the medical professionals who have clearly been the protagonists of the pandemic. We have witnessed on our TV and computer screens how they have been working incredibly long hours in very stressful conditions and we must take into consideration their needs for a comfortable and safe environment.

Moreover, in recent years there has been increasing interest in exploring social and urban systems that encourage design based on the premise that the physical environment in which we live is fundamental to our well-being. Public space is an essential part of what we have been defining as the “healthy city” for some time now. If urban public space in the 20th century was dominated by cars, trucks and buses, the 21st-century city is being redesigned for pedestrians, bicycles and scooters. Already we have seen that Paris, Milan and Barcelona have seized the moment by proposing new mobility plans to accelerate the ground gained during this period of confinement by widening sidewalks to facilitate the use of eco-friendly means of transport.

All is not lost
All is Not Lost, Brooklyn, NY, 2018. Photo © Diane Gray

COVID-19 has reminded us how interconnected we are with everything and everyone around us and across the globe. Of course, this is not new information, but we have been negating it for so long, it almost seems like a revelation. Emerging from this collective “on hold” we have lots to do. The contribution of architects and designers will be fundamental in putting forth an agenda that deals with the ongoing health crisis and at the same time reignites our efforts to curb climate change and the inequalities and imbalances created by the existing social, economic and political structures.


Main image: The empty city, Barcelona, April 2020. Photo © Dani Powell

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