Humanity is facing a collective new challenge unprecedented in our lifetime. One of isolation, driven by self-quarantine, for a period unknown. It is a social experiment with no predictable outcome. But one constant in the equation is architecture.
With over half the world’s population inhabiting cities or densely populated areas, billions of people are currently residing in small spaces, disconnected from one another by brick, concrete and steel. The social housing experiment of the 1950s and 60s created a new architectural typology, which was compounded by an underlying social construct, driven by capitalism, that told us to mind our own business. Somehow, during the age of high rises that followed, turned this idea of isolation into a status symbol, as private penthouses, accessed by private elevators, today float high above the city streets.
Long before this global pandemic, I became quite sensitive to this two-dimensional, vertical way of living. This state of isolation, for many around the globe, was already here. Whether a one-bedroom in an anonymous apartment building, or a duplex glass penthouse in a tall tower overlooking the East River, vertical living has turned us into voyeurs and observers, rather than participants. It made me long for the cul-de-sacs of my youth, when my mother and her friends would whistle from the balcony, a call to action, a symphony of sounds, a distinct pitch for each young child to follow home. Gone in many neighborhoods are the stoops, stickball in the street, altruism that extended beyond the individual to the collective. It is our design intention to use architecture to bridge communities and create spaces for connectionы that were lost in the decades of urban planning, where the rush to accommodate took priority over the need to assimilate.
While the impact of this virus on our quality of life is still unfolding, the question remains, what will be the future impact on society? What imprint on our collective memory will remain and how will it transform us?
I believe architecture has the power to shape behavior. Extreme conditions often clarify what otherwise is vague or uncertain. We say, for example, that true friendship is revealed in times of trouble, and that leadership is measured in times of distress. The nature of emergencies is that they surface acute questions about our way of life, social structure and interactions. During 9/11 this resulted in a need for greater security. In 2020, as the wave of COVID-19 subsides, I believe it will be a greater need for intimacy within communities.
Density doesn’t have to be the enemy - a well-designed community can be the solution. European villages, with their balconies and inner-courtyards and shared clotheslines, have a built-in layer of intimacy. I know that architecture has the power to revitalize communities in the same way, even if in a more modern form. Even a mammoth 2-block mini-city, comprised of 1 million square feet, and housing 4000 residents under a single roof, can feel like a neighborhood, light and airy and filled with song.
What must we weigh from this shared pandemic? One of the biggest concerns today is one of acute loneliness and depression. When thinking about resiliency, we should be thinking about social resiliency as well. As an architect living in NYC, I have always put a great value on green space, indoor and outdoor space, and a connection to nature. We must address light and air quality and the ability to step outside and invite in a new perspective filled with smells and sounds. But it takes more than just a balcony to share such human experiences. People need to feel secure in their homes, have common “territory” that allows neighbors to see and hear one another. While amenities are often seen as a craze or a fad, we see them as the new social fabric. We see them as the new neighborhood. Green walls and inner courtyards aren’t window dressing, they are a direct connection from your brain to the diurnal, indigenous instincts we have as humans on earth.
While the situation caused by the coronavirus is still unfolding, certain things are becoming self-evident. There must be a better way to arrange our homes in our increasingly dense cities where we can enjoy our privacy while acknowledging our neighbors, where we can all access outdoor spaces and feel the sunshine on our faces. Amenities that aren’t buried, but are treated as a luxury, that gives us the option of social engagement or time apart, that create nooks as well as recreation. This is what smart design means in the future. Design that meets all our needs, our human rights and instincts, that speaks to the collective whole, and therefore the collective good.
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