How COVID-19 Will Change Architecture

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Robison Wells
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It’s hard not to pay attention to the environment around you during this massive health crisis, whether you’re weathering out the storm at work or working from home (or, worse, laid off). Many people are using their quarantined time to disinfect, clean, and organize, and it has caused many people to reevaluate the spaces they live in and the spaces they hope to return to soon, including public spaces such as hospitals, airports, gyms, offices, and hotels.

As Rami el Samahy, a principal at Boston architecture and design firm OverUnder and adjunct professor at MIT’s School of Architecture and Planning, points out, this won’t be the first time in history that cities and buildings will be reimagined or redesigned in response to an increased understanding of disease: Consider Haussmann’s renovation of 1800s Paris, London’s reconfigured infrastructure in the wake of the city’s 1954 cholera epidemic, and 19th-century New York’s reaction to the squalid conditions of tenement housing. But while the particular lessons of COVID-19 are still very much to be determined, a few ideas have already emerged. For one thing, as architect David Dewane of Chicago firm Barker/Nestor points out, “architects are often inspired to come up with fresh ideas during those moments when we’ve got nothing else to do.”

One such change might be from the currently-preferred open-office design into what they’re calling an anti-open-office “deep-work chambers” system, where workers will be more isolated from their fellow employees. Whether this means that we’ll learn to embrace a work-from-home atmosphere (as many are already expecting) or whether more walls and partitions will be raised instead of low-walled cubicles, remains to be seen. But cutting people—and germs—off from each other and communicating through technology appears to be the wave of the future.

“When I graduated architecture school in ’94 we talked about how tech was going to change how we commuted and lived, and that has not been true,” says Lionel Ohayon, founder and CEO of New York design studio ICRAVE, which has overseen health care, airport, hospitality, and workplace projects around the world. “Cities are more popular, people use more paper, commercial real estate is booming while retail is devastated. All this will be tested as we’re forced to work apart. If virtual working is successful, if we’re in fact more productive, it’s going to fundamentally change the value proposition of shared workspace. Not everyone wants to be in a big social playground.”

Almost all architects and futurists alike are foreseeing a world where touching surfaces becomes less common: automatic doors, voice-activated elevators, cellphone-controlled hotel room keys, hands-free light switches and temperature controls. “I don’t see why if I can tell Siri to call my wife, or my remote to cue up Netflix, I couldn’t tell an elevator to take me to the 10th floor,” says Miami architect Kobi Karp, principal at Kobi Karp Architecture & Interior Design.

To sum up his thoughts, architect Dan Meis said ““I don’t think we’ll ever get to the point where we completely avoid public gathering, and it is the magic of sports and concerts, at least, to have that common experience. But in all settings, this experience has illustrated that it really is a very tiny world and we are all very connected. We just may have to become a bit less physically so, wherever possible.”

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