Letters from Lockdown: In the face of COVID-19, our optimism is exposed for what it is: opportunism, self-delusion, or outright naïveté, writes Reinier de Graaf
Architecture entails optimism. Architects will strain to identify an opportunity in every crisis. And if design websites are anything to go by, the current COVID-19 crisis is no exception: How to design a home to best self-isolate in? What could be the consequences of social distancing for ‘placemaking’? Is 3D printing the future of the construction industry? What impetus will enhanced-surveillance technology give to the concept of the ‘smart city’?
At the most recent count (13/04/20, 5.30pm GMT), COVID-19 has claimed more than 100,000 victims, and there are nearly two million confirmed cases across 210 countries. The future looks bleak. And in the face of COVID-19, our optimism is exposed for what it is: opportunism, self-delusion, or outright naïveté. Architects seem more concerned for the survival of their predilections, than the survival of the species.
Of course, this is by no means epidemic to architecture. Across the globe, the common threat posed by COVID-19 is met with the stock response. China hopes to further institutionalise the mass surveillance of its citizens; Putin cites the coronavirus threat as a reason to stay in power beyond 2024; Salvini and Orban blame immigrants; Britain keeps its stiff upper-lip; and the Trump administration claims to be doing great as always. Somehow, coronavirus proves everyone right.
“Architects seem more concerned for the survival of their predilections, than the survival of the species”
And yet, daily we are proven wrong. The global outbreak of COVID-19 poses a dilemma for which there is no quick fix, whether professional or political. At present there are no answers, only questions. When will the current crisis end, if at all? Will the world return to normal, if allowed? What will become of us, post COVID-19? What will become of architecture?
The truth is that nobody knows, and it would be foolish to pretend otherwise. When it comes to COVID-19, all bets are off. In the face of an urgent global crisis, that might be one of hardest things to admit. But for the time being, it is perhaps the most courageous thing to do.
Reinier de Graaf, April 2020
Reinier de Graaf is an architect and writer. He is partner in the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) and visiting professor of urban design at the University of Cambridge. De Graaf is the author of the book Four Walls and a Roof: the Complex Nature of a Simple Profession (Harvard University Press, 2017)