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Introducing Letters from Lockdown

I’ve asked architects from around the world to reflect on the design of cities for a post-Coronavirus world, to consider or dream about the future role of the architect, writes Marina Engel, architecture curator for the British School at Rome

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The deserted streets of London during lockdown (picture: Getty)
The deserted streets of London during lockdown (picture: Getty)

It is possible that we shall not “return to normal” when governments, globally, 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 changes in working patterns – already on the rise – could become permanent. A move to more home working would reduce transport and ensuing carbon dioxide emissions, as well as decreasing costs notably. Workspace and domestic space, 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 suppress 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. 


“Will architects need to negotiate expanding digital infrastructure to control, not only citizens’ movements, but even their body temperatures?”


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.


At the time of writing, among other nations, the Italian government has started to employ drones and geo-fencing to restrain the movements of its citizens, Israel is relying on its secret services and South Korea is following 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?


The empty streets of Rome during lockdown (picture: Getty)
The empty streets of Rome during lockdown (picture: Getty)


If man’s destruction of nature and biodiversity 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 biodiversity? 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, in places and for now, social distancing has stimulated a sense of community. Support groups for older and vulnerable people are multiplying. On 26 March, 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, trend forecaster Li Edelkoort maintains that the present “quarantine of consumption” could help reform our values.


I have posed some of the questions above to architects around the world and asked them to consider, or dream about, the role of the architect and urban design post COVID-19. 


I started in Italy, where at the time of writing, there is hope that the worst of the coronavirus outbreak in the country is over. Architect Cino Zucchi, refers to historian and critic 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; the design of homes and infrastructure was the subject of Pippo Ciorra, senior curator of architecture at Rome’s MAXXI museum’s reply, as he imagines a new form of dystopian space; architect Stefano Boeri responded to the matter of sustainable design, natural habitat and bio-diversity, highlighting the urgent need for a radical change in the way we think about our spaces.


In Dublin, Yvonne Farrell of Grafton Architects asks whether architects have created the right spaces to support citizens in lockdown. In the UK, author Carolyn Steel contemplated her area of expertise, the impact on food and cities, while architecture critic Joseph Rykwert gives us an invaluable historical perspective and thoughts for the future. Dutch architect Francine Houben is hopeful of designing a world that moves “forward to basics”, and “no comment” is how Dutch architect Reinier de Graaf responds, as he reminds us that these are still very early and indeed tragic times. 


Marina Engel is curator of the architecture programme at the British School at Rome


Letters from Lockdown will be published every day this week 

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