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“Design alone cannot change the global economic system”

Letters from Lockdown: I am very positive about the future and that we can craft, step by step, a world that is happier, writes Francine Houben

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Chairs stacked in the streets of Amsterdam (picture: Getty)
Chairs stacked in the streets of Amsterdam (picture: Getty)

The world is in flux — swept up in climate change, ceaseless urbanisation, the digitisation of systems, knowledge and life, global shifts in power, population, wealth and now in the centre of a global pandemic.

 

How do we reconnect space and people in a world after COVID-19? This moment challenges us to reimagine and rethink how we live together as a society and what our role as design professionals should be.

 

The future is about ‘forward to basics’.

 

I would like to reflect on this not only thinking about architecture practices, because architecture is all about multi-disciplinary teamwork. The lessons we learn from this pandemic will have a deep impact on the future of design, be it cities, public spaces, infrastructure, hospitality, learning environments, public buildings etc.

 

Going back to basics is not complacency, but rational. These words apply to everything architecture, design and urban planning should do. But what about the people?

 

“Yes, there is an emergency, but that doesn’t mean we should panic. I am very positive about the future, now it’s time to be resilient”

 

Our lifestyle, habits, routines, travel and social interactions have changed completely with most countries going into lockdown. We have all been directed to stay at home, take precautionary measures, maintain social distancing and even the corporate sector has directed its employees to work from home.

 

Yes, there is an emergency, but that doesn’t mean we should panic. I am very positive about the future, now it’s time to be resilient.

 

We know that we cannot keep on travelling as we do, and that is why I am trying to inspire people at my office to look at their surroundings. There is this idea that you need to look further in order to get the best or the most memorable experiences. That could not be further from the truth. Some of your best experiences can be found just around the corner.

 

Over the past decades, encountering people all around the world has shown me and underlined what everyone everywhere wants – the very simple things, to take care of their children and to be able to provide them with a better future. It’s about friends, family and communities.

 

I believe the human condition should be central to the future of design. We need to recognise the value of every individual, people’s engagement with each other, or culture, or nature, or in many cases a combination of both. Our attitude to Earth needs to change – nature has an irreplaceable value and beauty. It is vital that we reconnect to it.

 

As borders close and countries turn inward, it is more important than ever to uphold the value of compassion, and knowledge sharing to connect people to one another. The future is likely to bring more focus on the human scale, where the experience of each individual drives the design.

 

I think the concepts of public space and social distance will become central in the future development of our cities and the connection with the countryside. Mobility as we know will change. As the current pandemic unfolds, we will see how our systems of support and supply are vulnerable to disruption and most of our networks have been exposed as inadequate.

 

As I said previously, architecture is all about multi-disciplinary teamwork. Now it is time for the design community to come together – we need co-operation to face the challenge and to prepare the next steps.

 

And maybe, just maybe, we need to realise that instead of the capitalist model of economic growth, happiness should be the goal for societies to strive for. Design alone cannot change the global economic system, but it can help craft, step by step, a world that is happier.

 

Be prepared for (un)predictable change.

 

Continue to take care of each other.

 

Francine Houben, April 2020

 

Francine Houben is a Dutch architect and the founder of Mecanoo. Her books include People Place Purpose (Black Dog, 2015), Dutch Mountains (Uitgeverij de Kunst, 2011), Mobility, A Room with a View (NAi 2003) and Composition, Contrast, Complexity (Birkhaüser, 2001)

 

 

 

 

 


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