Letters from Lockdown

Reflexions on architecture and urban design, post Covid-19.

During lockdown, our Architecture Curator, Marina Engel, asked a series of architects, to consider, or dream about, the role of the architect and urban design post Covid-19.

It would seem that we are not “returning to normal” as governments, globally, begin to ease the restrictive measures implemented to contain Covid-19. Some sort of change is likely in the way we experience space in our work, social and personal relationships.

With billions of people all over the world sent home to work, some of the changes in working patterns-already on the rise- could become more permanent. A move to more home working would reduce transport and ensuing carbon dioxide emissions, as well as decreasing costs notably. Work spaces and  domestic spaces, the public and the private, could increasingly overlap. Rising numbers of “working homes” might need to be designed in an expanding shut-in economy.

 At the same time, MIT researchers believe that forms of social distancing are here to stay, at least until we manage to supress COVID-19, and future viruses. Architects could be faced with the challenge of having to incorporate social distancing into the design of high-density cities, of managing public spaces, not only of mass gatherings but also of infrastructure, shopping malls, cinemas, restaurants, gyms etc.

Different species of viruses could reappear in the future, and forms of restrictive government measures, now in place to contain COVID-19, could remain for some time. The Italian government  employed drones and geo-fencing to restrain the movements of its citizens, Israel relied on its secret services and South Korea, among other countries, followed contagious and quarantined citizens through GPS based apps. Growing government surveillance in an expanding smart city,-already on the ascent pre-Covid-19- could persist. What influence might this have on urban design? Will architects need to negotiate expanding digital infrastructure to control, not only citizens’ movements, but even their body temperatures?

If man’s destruction of nature and bio-diversity is perceived, by some scientists, as a cause of Covid-19 and other viruses, such as Ebola, will we see, finally, a more concerted effort to respect natural habitat and bio-diversity? If there is a correlation between air pollution, in our high-density cities, and a faster death-rate  from Covid-19 and SARS, how will we protect those cities from the spread of future viruses? Will this be a wake-up call to commit to a greener and  more sustainable environment?

Paradoxically, for now, social distancing has stimulated a sense of community. Support groups for the elderly and vulnerable are multiplying. On March 26th, nearly half a million people registered as NHS volunteers in the UK. Optimists believe that we shall see a “better world” post-Covid-19. Indeed, Li Edelkoort maintains that the present “quarantine of consumption” could help reform our values.

During lockdown, we posed some of the questions above to a series of architects, internationally, and asked them to consider, or dream about, the role of the architect and urban design post Covid-19.  At the time of writing, the worst of the Covid outbreak in Italy was over. We started by speaking to three leading authorities in Italy: Pippo Ciorra, Cino Zucchi and Stefano Boeri. The design of homes and infrastructure was the subject of Ciorra’s reply, as he imagines a new form of dystopian space, while, Cino Zucchi, refers to Adolf Behne’s distinction between functionalists and rationalists and urges us to reflect on the enduring qualities of Italy’s historic urban spaces and monuments. Stefano Boeri, responded to the matter of sustainable design, natural habitat and bio-diversity . His practice, Stefano Boeri Architetti, has constantly focused on the geopolitical and environmental implications of urban phenomena. Boeri describes how the Covid crisis has highlighted the urgent need for a radical change in the way we think about our spaces.  Back in the UK, Caroline Steel followed a similar trajectory, contemplating her speciality, food and cities. Joseph Rykwert, as always, gives us an invaluable historical perspective and thoughts for the future.“ No Comment” is how the Dutch architect. Reinier de Graaf, answered, as he reminded us that these are still very early and indeed tragic times.

Marina Engel (Architecture Curator, British School at Rome)

Read the texts by the architects here

This project is also in collaboration with the BSR Fine Arts departement. To find out more about the Fine Arts project Letters post Covid-19, click here

A modified version of this text appeared in online magazine The Developer, April 2020 and in the publication, June 2020.