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Architecture's helplessness in the face of a pandemic

09 of December '20

With the outbreak of the global pandemic, the Internet was flooded with designs and architectural concepts for adapting city spaces and buildings to the challenges of the special rules of living under a sanitary regime. However, times of crisis call for real-time responses and quick, decisive action. Architecture is slow to emerge - it needs time to conceptualize and emerge. So do architects have the tools to prove themselves in this situation?

Hygienic modernism

Sanatorium in Paimio

Photo credit: Leon Liao / Wikimedia Commons

Considering architecture in terms of a tool to improve the health of its users is not a new approach. One of the pioneering projects using architectural matter as a "medical instrument" is the Alvar Aalto-designed tuberculosis sanatorium in Paimio in southern Finland. This was directly reflected in the design of the patients' bedrooms designed for two people, each with its own cupboard and sink, while providing acoustic comfort in the room by leveling out the noise of the water. Aalto placed lamps in the room out of the patients' line of sight and painted the ceiling a relaxing gray-green color to avoid glare and build a calming atmosphere. However, the building took years to construct; the design was chosen in a competition in 1929, and the facility received its first patients four years later.

Military Sanatorium in Otwock

photo: NAC

It seems that today, Aalto's approach, also represented by other modernists of the era, and in Poland embodied, for example, in the Otwock realization of Edgar Nortwerth 's 1935 project, is not in keeping with the needs of immediacy in a highly globalized and communicated world, thus creating a framework for the faster spread of viruses. This is also known by architects, who often reach for small scale in their pandemic concepts, working at the intersection of architecture, landscape architecture and industrial design. For it seems that most of the changes we are seeing are happening in spite of or alongside architecture.

Against architecture

The first reaction to the pandemic strictures was to restrict functioning in every aspect of life, including architecture. Avoiding touching objects in public spaces, places of assembly or recreational facilities translated into a radical reduction in the functionality of buildings. Separate entrances and exits were segregated, disinfection stations appeared, and stretch wrap and tape enclosures became a new, permanent part of the urban landscape. It turned out that the most problematic areas were the common and public and commercial spaces, which for years had been designed under the dictates of developers. This, in turn, translated not only into a reduction of common areas, but also deliberate obstruction of communication, creating solutions that stimulate consumption, but limit the functionality of interiors. Inwardly directed strip malls had to be closed, unlike those located outside shopping malls. The lack of opening windows in office buildings prevents them from being ventilated effectively, and the limitation of the number of entrances to buildings means that their users must congregate in larger groups. The gesture of opening doors, described by Juhani Pallasma as "shaking hands with the building," is becoming dangerous and undesirable. It turns out that, in general, non-commercial architecture, less saturated with technology but better connected to the city and public space, is better able to cope with these challenges.

Public space

Temporary bicycle infrastructure in Paris

Photo credit: Ibex73 / Wikimedia Commons

This also applies to public spaces. Obstructions generated by underpasses and footbridges, too-small public transportation stops and bottlenecks on sidewalks are also hazards during pandemonium - forcing people to touch railings, use elevators and narrow stairways. Some of these problems have forced some cities to make changes that have the potential to change their operations in the long term as well. We're talking about temporary designated bike lanes and widened sidewalks at the expense of roadway lanes previously dedicated to car traffic. Western European cities have led the way in such measures. In Berlin, where traffic on the roads is 40% less - mainly because so many people now work from home - it has helped significantly to bring about change. Suddenly, in a time of crisis, bicycles became the ideal mode of transportation. The pace of the changes has led to a situation where eight of the fourteen temporary bike paths were declared illegal by an administrative court in early September. In Paris, as Mayor Anne Hidalgo announced, the temporary bikeways, which were introduced in haste and initially, are to be eventually converted into permanent ones. An example of similar measures can also be seen in Krakow, where, as part of the so-called Shield for Mob ility, officials have converted one lane each of Dietla Avenue and on the Grunwald Bridge into wide bicycle paths, thus meeting the demands of urban movements that have been raised for many years.

Shield for Mobility

Photo: Krakow City Hall

Attempts to deal with the crisis

Many of the projects found online were concerned with maintaining a safe social distance in public spaces. The idea of organizing urban infrastructure based on the principles of social distance is also the basis of a new project resembling a crowd-free maze of a public park by Studio Precht of Austria.

Parc de la Distance

Photo: Studio Precht

Designers from Architecture for Humans applied a similar principle to the design of pandemic seating, which not only provides distance, but also minimizes the surface of touch. Such solutions, however, have to contend with the variability of restrictions and rules during a pandemic. The top-down distances introduced change - sometimes 1m is enough, sometimes 1.5, and sometimes in public spaces we have to be 2 meters apart. This effectively prevents the introduction of such architectural solutions on a permanent basis.

Photo: Architecture for Humans

An interesting experiment in this regard was conducted by Elbląg's EL Gallery, which used its overgrown lawn for this purpose, which was mowed in a way that maintains the distance, allowing these parameters to vary - at least in the rhythm of grass growth.

Greater London Agriculture

Photo: RIBA

One of the winning proposals in a post-pandemic design competition organized by the RIBA was the Greater London Agriculture strategy. The project aims to transform the London metropolitan area into an ecologically diverse agricultural landscape. The project responds to the risks generated by industrialized food production and associated with the transmission of diseases from animals to humans. The project proposes to bring agroecology (sustainable agriculture that works in tandem with nature) to London by embedding growing spaces in and around the city, introducing funding for agroecological education that will allow pioneer farmers to learn the skills necessary to grow and transfer knowledge. However, this is a project of immense scale spread over years.

Photo credit: MASS Design Group

On an architectural scale, attempts to transform buildings and their interiors are being made by MASS Design Group, among others. The architects have developed guidelines for restaurants to help these businesses operate again in a safe and profitable manner. Based on global health recommendations, the protocols developed are designed to ensure the safety of both employees and customers, as well as facilitate operations. Underpinning the changes would be the designation of functional zones to control delivery, food dispensing, storage of goods and cooking, and disposal of contaminated materials. Developing nuanced solutions for different types and configurations of seating will, in turn, be crucial to ensure financial viability while keeping staff and customers safe. It is also important to expand restaurant gardens, which, as the best ventilated space, provide the best dining conditions during a pandemic.

The problems cited are also being discussed in Poland. In December, the exhibition"Space in times of pestilence" opened at the Institute of Design in Kielce. Physically inaccessible to the public for pandemic reasons, the exhibition curated by Domikia Janicka, presents architecture and design projects that respond to the many challenges posed by the pandemic. The exhibition also includes a section on the emotional sphere and the functioning of society in the era of the pandemic, often overlooked in public discussion. As the organizers explainthe title word "plague" - means in this context an epidemic of discrimination and hatred, which in 2020 hit minorities just as hard. The exhibition presents cases when the provisions and laws on space, instead of integrating, discriminated against selected social groups.

elaborated: Kacper Kępiński

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