Dear Colleagues and Members of the PIA,
When I watch programs and movies made before the Covid-19 crisis and see people greeting each other with handshakes, hugs and kisses I get a feeling of dissonance. I want to tell them to stop, to warn them to be careful. As if social distancing has become so ubiquitous that I have forgotten that there was a time when it was not an issue. A time when it would be considered downright rude NOT to shake hands or hug. And yet, human contact is a basic need. It is the way we express our feelings and derive comfort from one another.
When lockdown was first imposed, the two most prominent feelings I experienced were frustration and isolation. Even though my closest family were constantly around me I felt isolated from the outside world and missed just seeing other faces. Because my family were constantly around me, I felt frustrated and irritable. And yet I am one of those fortunate people that have a comfortable house with a garden, with plenty of space for all of us. My children are in high school and do not need constant movement and variety. I cannot even imagine the level of frustration of lockdown in an apartment with kids under 6.
As architects our medium is space. We have been trained to mould it, to make it do double-duty, to compress it in some areas and expand it in others. But most of all we have been trained to be efficient with it. Space costs money. Generous rooms advertise the owner’s wealth and status. Small, efficient spaces their ingenuity. Over the past couple of decades there has been a decided shift towards small, ingenious spaces, and towards densification. But Covid-19 may change in fundamental ways how we approach spatial design.
Aspects like circulation, density and intensity of use may need to be turned inside-out and upside-down to derive novel ways to ensure social distancing. What is more, this change in approach may be a lot more long-lasting than the current pandemic. One only needs to look at the way Cholera epidemics have shaped, and improved, our cities’ standards of hygiene and drainage, or how fire has influenced our city layouts. Our species, it seems, often learns the hard way, but there are long-term benefits of enhanced spaces for our communities.
There are many articles written already concerning post-Covid19 design principles*. They generally deal with separation of spaces or demarcating personal zones, and most are common-sense. As architects we can apply reasonable rationale to our designs to ensure safer public spaces in terms of spread of infections. Additional, or more generous circulation routes to limit mingling of people. Signposting to guide direction of movement (incidentally, this is already informally applied in many European countries, and you can get some dirty looks if accidentally keep to the wrong side of a walkway or a stair). Wider shopping isles. Bigger classrooms. Screens. Booths. Automatic doors, or no doors if possible. etc. But what we still need to keep in mind is that humans need to look at and interact with other humans, only now from a bit farther than before.
The Covid-19 pandemic will be a thing of a past one day, but its effects on our society’s psyche and economy will most probably linger for some time to come. Social distancing is undoubtedly here to stay for the foreseeable future.
Yours in architecture