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The pandemic has shown us what the future of architecture could be

As we try to understand the role of architecture post-pandemic, we have to first better understand the ways we inhabit buildings and move through space

By The Washington Post | July 28, 2020 | Architecture

In the spring of 2002, a curious building took shape just off the shore of Lake Neuchâtel in Switzerland. It looked like a bare industrial platform surrounded by a mesh of tubes and scaffolding. But the structure had an "on" switch, and when it was flipped, the open-air decks were transformed. Water from the lake was pumped at high pressure through 35,000 nozzles, aerosolized into a fine mist that became a cloud of vapour engulfing the whole thing. Visitors to the Swiss Expo, for which the building was designed, could enter the cloud, move around in it, ascend just above it and experience the curious effect of having the world blurred away and dissolved in artificial fog.

The Blur Building, created by Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio, was one of the iconic architectural events of the new millennium. It was a temporary structure that served no purpose other than to delight and perhaps provoke its visitors, to offer them an experience apart from ordinary cares and concerns. But that experience also made tangible dreams that have animated architects for a century at least - to create spaces in which the interior and the exterior flow into one another, to dematerialize buildings from stone and steel to something more fluid, dynamic and permeable.

"The public can drink the building," the designers wrote. The project also created space without enclosure, in which people were invited to move with no set patterns of circulation, no hallways or corridors or walls to guide or contain them. It was, seemingly, an architecture of total freedom.

Imagine if that building were being proposed today, in the middle of a pandemic, when the first association of the word "aerosolize" isn't fog, mist or clouds, but the product of a cough or sneeze, laden with a dangerous virus, a vector for death. Now that everyone on the planet must carefully weigh the benefits and dangers of crossing the threshold between private and public space, between indoors and outdoors, can we salvage anything of the old fantasy of erasing these boundaries? When the best hope for slowing and containing the coronavirus is the careful regulation of movement and strict observance of social distancing, what happens to our desire for buildings that celebrate wandering, promiscuous exploration and spontaneous social interaction?

As covid-19 spread from China to the world, and became a pandemic with devastating effects on national health-care systems and the world economy, architects found themselves in the same position as everyone else: shut indoors, nervous about the future and scrambling to remain relevant and necessary as clients fled or postponed major projects. The shutdown hit the industry hard, with the Architectural Billings Index, which is used to project nonresidential building prospects, experiencing its largest single-month decline since the American Institute of Architects developed the economic indicator 25 years ago. By April, more than 8 in 10 architectural firms surveyed by the AIA had applied for federal Paycheck Protection Program loans.

Suddenly, the profession was at a crossroads. Was this a time for quick, targeted, pragmatic responses to a built environment that no longer felt safe, or was this a revolutionary moment, a call to rethink everything? In March, news from the architecture world was all about postponed lectures, closed offices and canceled conferences. On March 26, Michael Sorkin, one of the country's most outspoken voices on urban design and architecture, died of complications from covid-19. He had been a revered educator and an inspiration to some of the most progressive, socially minded architects working today. His loss was a blow to the field. By April, the architecture and design community was flooded with webinars and online talks and cyber conferences, addressing a range of issues as vast as the profession itself: How to turn convention centers into hospitals and how to make overcrowded hospitals safer. But also, how to "turn your home into a sanctuary" and how to 3-D-print face shields at home.

Some thinkers were making big connections (one architect offered "a new design model [that] can curb the environmental destruction that contributes to pandemics"). Others were connecting the pandemic to familiar, favourite issues: "The coronavirus has created an opportunity to improve the pedestrian experience in our cities and towns. ..."

This was architecture being architecture. The purview of the field is as specific as doorknobs and light switches, and as far-reaching as global transportation infrastructure and communication networks. The profession is intensely practical, often highly specialized and sometimes maddeningly theoretical, and the sudden, seemingly chaotic burst of responses to the pandemic is simply how it collectively thinks. But there was an urgency driven by more than just the mounting death toll from the virus.

Enlightened designers know that our cities need to be dense and connected if we are to avoid the environmental problems of the mid-century suburb and a car-based culture. Tall buildings, with elevator cores, help increase density. Urban life must also be full of interaction and social energy if we are to live happily in proximity. Social stability across the generations requires that we live in fluid, multigenerational communities, integrating rather than isolating or alienating the young, the working-aged and the elderly. Yet covid-19 has threatened all of this, not just high-minded ideas about dense, socially diverse, democratically engaged cities, but also the way we inhabit buildings and move through space.

In big cities around the world, people eyed each other warily over face masks, moving to the edges of the sidewalk, hugging the entryway to buildings, letting the elevator pass rather than join other passengers in a confined space. Images emerged of ice rinks turned into impromptu morgues. On television, Americans saw family members gather outside the windows of senior living facilities, where their parents and grandparents were dying in record numbers. They stood unprotected from the elements, among spindly ornamental bushes, putting their hands to windows above them, seeking communication with people on the other side of plywood walls clad with aluminum siding. This wasn't just a social tragedy; it was a mark of architectural failure and a real-time example of how people will spontaneously re-purpose buildings if those buildings aren't serving them well.

Meanwhile, hundreds of millions of people, including many architects, were confronting the inadequacies of their own domestic spaces: small apartments, clustered around empty event spaces and workout rooms that weren't safe to use, with laundry available only in the basement. Open-plan suburban houses, with vast interiors, lacked sufficient partitions to keep people with the virus apart from those without it. As weeks of isolation turned into months, and as the fear of a rise in infections grew with the approach of summer, these inadequacies seemed to forge a new consensus, not fully articulated but widely felt: Architecture is about rights, about air, about equal access to the necessities of life.

As the pandemic continues, and as architects are emboldened by the growing realization that this is a transformational moment that could topple old hierarchies, and even capitalism as we know it, they are thinking about the legacy of modernism and its promise to remake the world. Is it possible that architecture could be broadly political, as it once was, but more effective? Could it undertake projects larger than walkable cities and energy-efficient high-rises? Could it aim for something bigger than the creation of buildings in which we live, work and die, something more like an environment that surrounds us, protects us and inspirits us? Could architecture, like the world the virus was threatening, become organic?

The Blur Building, atop Lake Neuchⴥl in Switzerland. Water from the lake was filtered and shot through 35,000 high-pressure nozzles to create fog that engulfed the temporary structure, which featured no walls or corridors to guide visitors. Image: Courtesy of Diller Scofidio + Renfro

In the spring, as the pandemic spread, Hashim Sarkis published a book he had been working on for years, while managing the details of the now postponed 2020 Venice Biennale of Architecture, for which he was the curator. Sarkis, the dean of the MIT School of Architecture and Planning, had written a survey of projects by architects who designed (though rarely built) often fantastical structures on a global scale. Written with Roi Salgueiro Barrio and Gabriel Kozlowski, "The World as an Architectural Project" explores designs akin to the Blur Building in their speculative and sometimes playful ambition, but bigger, more utopian and sometimes dystopian.

It includes a short analysis of Constant Nieuwenhuys's New Babylon, described as "a camp for nomads" on a planetary scale, a vision of a new world in constant flux, catering to the creative whims, energies and shifting impulses of a society liberated from the necessity of work. And critical commentary on a plan for a Continuous City, by the British architects Alan Boutwell and Michael Mitchell, which would encircle the Earth like a vast elevated bridge, incorporating the social, domestic and infrastructural necessities of a highly technical society into a single megastructure.

"As architects, we are condemned to optimism," Sarkis says in an interview. "Our field is necessarily about proposing and imaging new things, what the world could be through making a part of it better."

His book is more than a compendium of wild ideas from the past, and these unrealized projects are part of an essential tradition of "paper" architecture that keeps the field intellectually lively and grounds actual buildings in a larger theoretical discourse. Many of these ideas - often made in response to discontent with the reigning dogmas of the era in which they were conceived - also trace the contemporary fault lines of the profession today as it grapples with an accelerating pace of chaos and crisis: not just a pandemic, but social and economic inequality, entrenched racism and environmental collapse. Some of the projects Sarkis analyzes tended toward creating isolated, self-sufficient architectural entities - giant safe zones - while others sought to integrate the world into a seamless whole. Some looked for redemption through technical or scientific solutions; others posited anarchic, earthy new utopias. But none of the architects thought small.

"We are entangled and exhausted by a procedural thinking," says Sarkis, who stresses what he calls "the imaginary," the inherent power of architecture to visualize and suggest new possibilities. "Rather than say ... is it worth it or not? Can we get there or not? Let's imagine it, let's figure out how to get there."

"I don't want to throw a technical solution at this," architect Michael Murphy says of the challenge architects confront with covid-19. Murphy is founding principal and executive director of MASS Design Group, a Boston-based firm that defines itself as a catalyst "for economic growth, social change, and justice." His comment is interesting, given the particular attention and practical expertise he and his firm have devoted to the health-care industry. Murphy's group was instrumental in designing the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala., which memorializes African Americans killed by lynching. It is the most powerful and significant memorial created in this country since Maya Lin's Vietnam Veterans Memorial, but it is Murphy's earlier work, on health-care facilities in Africa, that has established his reputation as an essential voice in the field.

His 2011 Butaro District Hospital in Rwanda was designed to use sustainable and mostly low-tech means, including natural ventilation, high ceilings, external corridors and low-speed fans to minimize the transmission of airborne diseases. Critics have praised how its natural stone walls and red roofs are fitted into a hilly landscape, how its bright, open interiors seem to gather and hold light in a quiet stasis. But the building was also conceptualized to promote healing at a deeper level by using local labor for construction, local building materials and techniques, making it a collective project and an economic engine in a country still suffering the social trauma of the 1994 genocide.

Murphy is in demand today to talk about how to rethink hospitals and health-care facilities. But he doesn't think that such practical responses will be the legacy of the pandemic. The architect is more interested in a broader paradigm shift in a field that is grappling with a troubling thought: The buildings that many of us live and work in offer little sense of comfort, safety or sustenance.

"I think this is one of our great existential moments in the built environment," Murphy says. "We've lost touch with the public's understanding of what the built environment is supposed to do. Those questions were kind of academic, but now they are present in everyone's daily life. The built environment is threatening us."

"This is one of our great existential moments in the built environment," says architect Michael Murphy.

The pandemic has made the theoretical and philosophical immediate, not just to architects, but to everyone stuck indoors. "That offers us some really unique opportunities and some true questions of accountability and ethics about what we build, what we have built and what we invest in in the future," says Murphy. "I think this intersects with questions of ethics and morality and equity that are now present to everybody."

Kulapat Yantrasast, founding partner and creative director of the Los Angeles-based wHY Architecture, puts it another way: He isn't interested in your mudroom. By which he means that he isn't interested in addressing the immediate need for small-bore, surgical interventions to keep the virus at bay. And he certainly isn't interested in the "mudroom," which stands for a whole nexus of architectural jobs revolving around the needs and wants of moneyed elites, like improving the sanitary cordon of a McMansion's entryway.

"The profession is focused on being hired to solve problems, to sanitize spaces, to plan offices better, or shopping malls better, or hotels," Yantrasast says. "We can do all that very well. We understand how to use UV light, density, materials. But we have not really been deep in our mission."

Scattered, targeted responses, such as antimicrobial surfaces and touchless elevators, he says, "don't constitute a philosophy or a direction." And architects who hang out a shingle that says, "We can save you," Yantrasast says, are just addressing "the low-hanging fruit." Architecture, he argues, needs to radically change toward a service profession, working not in isolation, but across disciplinary boundaries, approaching projects not just as problems to be solved with steel, concrete and glass, but as social problems and needs that demand wider, more holistic solutions.

All of this can sound a bit vague, like the inspirational but vaporous language one hears at professional symposiums and TED Talks. We need architecture that is sustainable, flexible, adaptive, responsive and local, but without being parochial. But we also need architecture that is cosmopolitan and smart, engaged and connected. It seems we want an architecture that does everything. But what does that look like in real life?

- - -

"Pandemics are a spatial problem," says David Benjamin, associate professor of architecture at Columbia University and a founder and principal at the Living, a New York-based research and design group that fuses biological insight with design practice.

In September 2018, he and his colleagues opened an exhibition at New York's Storefront for Art and Architecture called "Subculture: Microbial Metrics and the Multi-Species City," which explored the microscopic biodiversity of city life. Using the analogy of the microbiome - the idea that every human plays host to a unique colony of microbes - the exhibition speculated that cities and neighborhoods have characteristic biomes. The exhibition had a larger argument, about how a "culture of cleanliness" in our architecture and urban design was self-defeating. This fetish for sterile environments - and environments that look sterile - included using materials, such as concrete designed to repel bacteria and sanitized Sheetrock, that were ultimately isolating us from the healthy multiplicity of the biological world.

When the exhibition opened, it was meant to be thought-provoking and suggestive, rather like the Blur Building and the paper architecture of Sarkis's book. Wooden tiles, cut in such a way as to maximize their receptivity to microorganisms, were affixed to the exterior of the building and periodically sampled to track the accumulation of microbes and other visitors. Benjamin was looking at how microorganisms move through space, how they can be detected and tracked, how living entities might be used as sensors - just as mussels can be used to track pollution in water. He was speculating about how smart, networked buildings could help trace and track the movement of microscopic life, and potentially pathogens. And the larger architectural argument Benjamin had been making - that the seemingly sanitary, modernist glass-and-steel box, shut from the outside with its own HVAC system, wasn't serving us well - never seemed more urgent.

On one level, "pandemics are a spatial problem" is simply a call for architects to be directly engaged with the issue. They are trained to deal with spatial problems: how one space relates to another, how rooms flow into each other, how they are connected by corridors and how their volumes interrelate. But at a deeper level, Benjamin is saying that the pandemic touches on everything; it transpires throughout the totality of the three-dimensional world we inhabit, influencing and influenced by every relation of one thing to another. The pandemic, and the problems it has highlighted and exacerbated, is as inescapable as space, or life.

"The crisis of the pandemic is highly related to the crisis of climate change, and to the economic crisis," he says. "We can't and shouldn't address one alone, and we must address all three together. That means designing with uncertainty and with invisible forces in mind."

That's a very different formulation from how architects considered design projects in much of the past century, and it reveals how much the fundamental metaphor governing buildings is changing. Throughout much of the 20th century, buildings were conceived of as machines. There was a definite problem to be solved, and the building was designed as a tool to solve that problem. A house is a machine for living in, wrote the Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier in a 1923 manifesto, a phrase that has been distilled to an all-purpose slogan suggesting that all buildings are somehow machines. But machines are good at doing a very specific set of tasks, and they almost always become obsolete, often quickly.

"I think we need to lose the machine," says George Ranalli, a New York-based architect and former head of the architecture program at City College of New York.

"They're not even machines," says Ranalli's wife and partner, Anne Valentino, who is a psychologist. "They are designed like consumer products: They have a case and a screen." And they do one or two things well, for a while, and quickly end up in the dump, superseded by a new product. That sense of disposability is an environmental problem, and it makes the built environment seem alien, a part of the corporate landscape of consumerism, not something we inhabit, tend, care for and love.

The machine as metaphor has been on the way out for a few decades now, but its replacement - the building as a living organism - has been slow to gain widespread acceptance. References to the organic world exist throughout architecture, from the forest-like interiors of Gothic architecture to Frank Lloyd Wright's lily-like columns of his Johnson Wax headquarters in Wisconsin to green buildings. Green buildings, like a pair of "vertical forests" built in Milan, also reference the idea in their emphasis on sustainability, and biomimicry - the use of biological forms as a basic inspiration for design - is a fashionable subset of contemporary design. But the pandemic may hasten a universal and pragmatic acceptance of these ideas and other even more far-reaching ones. Not only has it made a few billion people more intimately aware of the larger, organic world, and our contingent place in it, but it has also demonstrated in real time the interconnections between social, economic and environmental problems. No single metaphor seems big enough to encompass how we think about this array of crises, and the old metaphors deployed at moments of crisis in the past - let's mount a War on Poverty or a crusade against hunger - seem entirely ill-suited to a moment when everything wants healing, nurturing, sustenance and connection.

Throughout much of the 20th century, buildings were conceived of as machines. There was a definite problem to be solved, and the building was designed as a tool to solve that problem.

The metaphor that equates a building or urban space to a living thing takes different forms, from analogies to basic biological processes to a wider sense that while buildings emerge from mankind's technical prowess, they also reflect a deeper sense of humanism. They breathe, excrete and circulate air and fluids, but they also think and perhaps feel. Buildings, neighborhoods and cities, and the natural landscape into which we insert them, have rights, and those rights must be negotiated.

"I've come to believe that breathing and the access to clean air is a fundamental issue," Murphy says. "Breathing is an architectural and spatial problem."

It is about things as basic as materials that inflame asthma, or neighborhoods encased within highways that befoul the air. But it's also about access to open space, buildings with functioning windows and domestic spaces that breathe. There is also a bigger, metaphorical sense of existential comfort in the idea of breathing, as in spaces, places and environments that allow us to "breathe easy."

"What is clean air?" Murphy asks. "Not just pathogens, or toxins, off-gassing building materials, releasing carbon into the atmosphere. Air, when it becomes spatialized, offers us this window into these broader needs and questions." We can survive for a while without light, but we can't survive without air, so air makes old architectural questions more urgent: Whose office is near the open window? Who gets a big, airy house that fronts onto a park, and who gets a small apartment that faces a fetid alley? These questions recur at a national and global scale when we think not just about pollution, but how pollution travels, how fires, man-made and naturally occurring, erase forests the entire planet needs to breathe and send giant plumes of smoke over cities inhabited by people who live hundreds of miles from the flames. Modernism privileged light as an aesthetic commodity, because it enabled us to see; organic architecture privileges air, which enables us to live.

- - -

As the pandemic was shutting down the University of California at Los Angeles, architecture student Jacob Sertich, 26, was finishing his senior project. Working with the Japanese architect Hitoshi Abe, Sertich was studying an interesting idea: Could senior housing be inserted into busy, dynamic, mixed-use buildings, such that the elderly had access to the full panoply of urban life? How might a high-rise with shops and offices and transit connections be adapted so that people dealing with the physical challenges of aging might live richer, more connected lives?

And then the pandemic made it painfully obvious that, to stay safe and healthy, elderly people needed to be isolated from the free flow of the virus. "I was caught up in this research when this all still made sense, and it seemed like an inevitable architectural trend," Sertich says. "Now, having wrapped up my project, which dealt with co-living for the elderly, which reduced social isolation, there were basic questions of whether those models can work."

Sertich submitted his work, and it took the top award for a graduate research project in architecture at UCLA. But he's been rethinking all of it. And there are no easy answers. In Italy, where the elderly often live closely integrated with their families, they were susceptible to the virus brought into domestic spaces by younger relatives. In the United States, where older people are too often segregated in facilities staffed by underpaid workers who live in inadequate housing, use crowded public transit and sometimes work several jobs to make ends meet, seniors have been dying at appalling rates. What is the answer?

Architecturally, there isn't one. This is a social problem, an economic problem, a moral problem. Sertich's answer speaks to a new humility in the profession: "You can't find a solution if you are the one mastermind behind the design."

Yet the exciting thing today is that this sense of humility is now joined to a resurgent sense of ambition. That makes the current moment of social and political activism different from earlier inflection points in the recent history of architecture. Unlike the 1980s and '90s, when many architects turned inward into theoretical discourses that grew increasingly detached from practical building issues, and from the larger public, there is now a feeling that architecture must be, and can be, both theoretical and pragmatic. And unlike the 1960s, the era that saw many of the megaprojects discussed in Sarkis's book about global architecture, the ambition is tempered by the understanding that pure imagination is insufficient, unless informed by things like observation, listening, collaboration and practical insight.

Yantrasast goes so far as to say that architecture as we used to know it will disappear. "I do not think that architecture will continue to exist by itself," he says. "It will integrate itself with other things. The discipline has realized that the isolation from life, from social knowledge and discourses, has harmed us."

And how would he suggest young architects further that evolution? Make friends. Read everything. Engage. "If you have friends across the disciplines, you will understand what these disciplines need from you."

And what of projects like the Blur Building? Do they belong to the pre-covid era when architects could shoot to stardom by building something dazzling, buildings with no particular purpose other than to make the mind dance and engage the senses? Is the playfulness of the Blur Building, and the dark irony of many of the world-encompassing projects surveyed by Sarkis, a relic?

"I am very proud of that project, but when we (think about) it today, certainly atomized particles in the air are infectious," says the Blur Building's co-designer, Liz Diller, now a principal at Diller Scofidio + Renfro. "If the length of a sneeze can determine safe distance to somebody else, then it does make us think about this atmosphere as a potentially negative thing, that air could carry a virus or contagion."

She trails off, and then begins thinking aloud. The Blur Building helped make her firm one of the most sought-after in the world. Among its projects is the 2009 High Line, the elevated railroad converted to a fashionable park in Manhattan. Closed during the pandemic but scheduled to reopen on July 16, the High Line is usually crowded, full of people flowing past one another in tight but open-air spaces. Diller, speaking before the reopening had been scheduled, wonders if it could be made one-way to limit possible exchange of the virus (and that is now the plan). Or perhaps, through careful entry and exit patterns, people can be spread out so they aren't bumping into each other.

"I have been thinking a lot about atmosphere," Diller says. And also about time, the "fourth dimension." Time, she says, may be the new critical element to architecture and urban space, just as it is the critical thing that distinguishes a living thing from an inanimate machine. She isn't turning back from the old promise of the Blur Building, the ideals of freedom and engagement and, yes, delight. But maybe the High Line can be pulsed with people, spread out through the day, which might be a model for the city at large, just as dense and dynamic as it always was, but throbbing with life around-the-clock so that streets and subways are a little less crowded.

In retrospect, the Blur Building looks as prophetic of a post-covid world as it is emblematic of the pre-pandemic one. It had much of the old machine about it, with water nozzles and pumps, and a sleek, machine-age aesthetic in its materials and assemblage. But it also made people keenly aware of some of the issues explored in Benjamin's 2018 project at the Storefront for Art and Architecture. How do small particles move? What kind of miasmas surround us, and how do we relate to them?

The pandemic, architect Elizabeth Diller says, "is a problem that is going to be solved by medicine and not cured by architecture. But notions of flexibility are the way that our studio is going to go forward."

"That building was for us really, really important because it proved that buildings don't have to have walls and they don't have to have a program," Diller says. In 2002, that expressed an ideal of pure freedom. Today, it might better express an ideal of pure adaptability.

The pandemic, she says, "is a problem that is going to be solved by medicine and not cured by architecture. But notions of flexibility are the way that our studio is going to go forward. It isn't just the virus; it is the change of the speed of society, where (the old) architecture (was) too slow to react, and very geo-fixed and heavy and expensive.

"The way to think about architecture to prevent its obsolescence is to stress things like lightness, adaptability, suppleness, the ability to think about program change, the ability to think about sudden economic changes and population increases. This kind of adaptability to economic, environmental, political change is really, really critical for the discipline to become important, vibrant and connected to what is happening."

There's a curious echo in these words, which express an organic idea of lightness, adaptability and suppleness, of one of the most famous statements ever made about the design of buildings - that form must follow function. The words were written by the great American pioneer of the high-rise, Louis Sullivan, a generation before Le Corbusier defined buildings as machines. They seem to encapsulate the machine-age of architecture, but Sullivan wrote them in a context that has been all but forgotten: "Whether it be the sweeping eagle in his flight, or the open apple-blossom, the toiling workhorse, the blithe swan, the branching oak, the winding stream at its base, the drifting clouds, over all the coursing sun, form ever follows function, and this is the law."

The problem, it seems, wasn't the modernist ambition to remake the world. It was an image, a mistaken mental picture of what a building should be, that led so many architects astray. They looked to the world of machines, to automobiles and home appliances, which were transforming the planet and daily life, and that world seemed, for a time, full of infinite possibility. But if they had looked to the living world - blithe, winding, sweeping and drifting alongside us - they would have found something better than a machine. If they had gotten out into the open air, they would have realized that they needed something more encompassing than a picture or a metaphor. They needed an idea capacious enough to include not just buildings or cities. They needed to think not about things but beings, and not in isolation. A virus is giving our planet a remedial lesson about how we are all connected, and architecture may be the science that consolidates this terrible but liberating new wisdom.

This article originally appeared on The Washington Post