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It's been an unprecedented few weeksand according to designers and architects, this experience may just change the way we think about our personal and public spaces forever.
When I think of how the COVID19 epidemic is affecting how we interact with each other, it makes me think about how this may change how we think about, and what we demand of, design and architecture. When pondering this, I contemplate two related but different ideas.
One is the thought that when we face an overwhelming crisis we reach for what we know, using whatever is at hand to alleviate the conditions imposed on us. Like a social bricoleur, we create comfort from what we have and what we know. The bricolage that results from this is neither imagined nor planned. It arises from unexpected adoption and adaptation of things not unfamiliar to us. A process that changes our lives by accelerating the adoption of some seemingly fringe practices while making others seem oddly out of touch with our new realities.
In this conception, my mind immediately gravitates to the transformation of social interaction over the internet. Whereas we were all happy broadcasting on the promises of Web 2.0, sending snippets of our lives to everyone and no one in particular, social interaction has now taken on a completely different character. A character promised in the early years of LTE communication, where we would use the power of the internet to actually communicate with each other. Like so many, I now host and join many cocktail hours, dinners, and other online events that I find quite enjoyable. Events that I would have dismissed as not worth the time before. My habitual resistance melted away in the face of this uninvited social paradigm shift.
New habits like this will require an equivalent change in the spaces we inhabit. I can imagine our desire to move past a propped up smart phone at the dinner table may to lead anywhere from the addition of a dedicated place to rest the phone so we can see everyone comfortably to the ubiquitous inclusion of cameras, microphones, and speakers in our spaces so that we can effortlessly summon people digitally into the spaces of our daily lives.
Similarly, the idea of telecommuting has moved from a relatively abstract concept to a hard reality for many people. A reality that may prove to many skeptics that it is not only possible, but maybe also desirable, for those whose jobs permit it. If adopted, telecommuting will demand changes to the spatial and acoustic planning of our spaces, specially for apartments and condominiums, particularly if there are to be more than one person telecommuting.
Telecommuting may also change the nature of our social spaces. A few years back I was in Palo Alto and saw coffee shops with meeting rooms of various sizes equipped with high speed telecommunication available for rent. Unlike the idea of shared work spaces where the idea of an office is made flexible, these coffee shops offer a vision of the future where our social and work spaces are fluid and diffuse. It now seems like a distinct possibility that we may be exploring designs for just such a future.
The other way of thinking about this does not lie in extrapolation, but rather on imaginative lateral and creative thinking. This is where we invent yet to be thought of objects and organizations to deal with a crisis like this in the future. This is where we rethink our existing structures for resilience, for adaptability, for the ability to transform buildings and spaces into needed infrastructure in times of a pandemic. In the vein of post-disaster designs, this asks us to design structures that have built into them the ability to transform into agents of social good in times of disaster, like how can a hotel become a place for social isolation, a restaurant a community kitchen. In my mind, this will be borne from the realization that we cannot afford to have a separate disaster infrastructure at the ready but will have to rely on intelligent convertibility as a line of defense.
This rethinking may also swell the numbers of those who question the wisdom and value of many of the parts that underwrites our current global capitalist structure. Among these may be our over-reliance on a global supply chain. This could create demand and support for local design and manufacture within local communities within a global framework of ideas.
As we evolve through the COVID19 pandemic it is hard to say what will become normal, what will be relegated as anachronistic, and what will stay as it always was. What is certain is that these revised social norms will change the demands we make on the spaces we inhabit. As with any crisis there are opportunities hidden in the hardships, it is up to us to seize them and make a better, more resilient world when we get through it.
I believe very strongly this is what a paradigm shift feels like. There needs to be a critical balance between the desire to prepare oneself for working in home environments, but not moving back to 1950s bomb shelter kind of thinking. When I walk the streets, what I’m seeing more than ever is that people are desperate to talk with one another. I think there needs to be a fundamental balance between re-padding the nest and creating stronger connective tissue to your neighbourhood. I hope this doesn’t lead to xenophobia where people are retracting from the world; I hope it means a greater attention to ways people think of neighbourhoods first, and how architecture and design can connect them. Individuals may come up with a different type of courage that may let them think about themselves beyond their fences.
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