Architecture after the coronavirus (1)

Almost six months after the outbreak of the coronavirus, the world is finally in the process of re-opening. We are anxious to find out to what extent the “togetherness” – our fundamental value as a social animal – will have to be modified in the post-corona society. 

It makes a lot of sense to ask architects, since they design social settings that house togetherness, whether they are office buildings, schools, sports arenas, concert halls, stations or shopping malls. Now that we need to be a lot more careful getting together, how are they feeling about the next step?

Before getting into the discussion, it will help to remind where the coronavirus came from. COVID-19 is, as its name suggests, one of the latest (2019 version), and most dangerous emerging infectious diseases (EIDs) that are transmitted to humans from animals (called zoonotic), the move once thought was impossible. Experts took notice when AIDS started spreading through the world quickly, which was followed by yet another EIDs such as SARS, MERS, Ebola and the older version of coronavirus. They were concerned that new, strong viruses could emerge and cause serious pandemic. Unfortunately it became reality with COVID-19.

But why/how does it happen?

Strong, unknown viruses live deep in nature. Before globalization, the wildest nature was not only physically far away, but also inaccessible because it was too dangerous to wade in. So people left it untouched for thousands of years, and instead created some buffer zones through which they would access natural resources/blessings. There was a line between ferocious nature and humans with vulnerable body. People carefully chose buffer zones and placed a variety of structures – both tangible and intangible – in order to loosely/softly connect their world with nature to get what they needed to survive without exposing them to serious threats. Those endeavors can be called architecture. Not only buildings, but also other structures such as infrastructure or agricultural systems can be included in architecture in a sense that they were designed to facilitate human-nature relationship.

Without modern technology, natural environment was dangerous in many ways. People left most of it untouched, including the areas that hosted deadly viruses.

But technology advancement completely changed nature-human relationship. People forgot about the threats that hide in natural environment, or thought that they completely tamed it, and started to expand their territory very rapidly. The areas once believed to be impassable were bulldozed and converted into something economically profitable. That’s how viruses in deep nature suddenly found an increased number of hosts, which are much, much closer to them. They first got on to animals, then hopped on to domesticated animals, then finally on to humans. 

Dr Peter Daszak, President of EcoHealth Alliance – a US-based organisation that conducts research and outreach programs on global health, conservation and international development – said in an interview with The Telegraph:

Our ecological footprint is expanding exponentially, and that drives spillover from wildlife to people. Our global travel and trade networks facilitate rapid spread – SARS took two to three months to get out of China, this one (COVID-19) took two weeks.

With modern technology, people came very close to the ferocious nature to be reminded that there still are substantial threats in it, for which we don’t have solutions.

Modern architecture has became effective engines that helped push the expansion of humans’ world, rather than a buffer that connected it with natural environment. Not only it because large and incompatible with nature, it became in conflict with it as it focused on technical/economic efficiency that couldn’t be achieved without overwhelming natural resources. It was amid that background where we saw coronavirus outbreak.

We may eventually find a vaccine for COVID-19, but viruses will react, just like “pests” react to pesticides and become resistant to it. As far as people keep wading into deep nature, the threats will remain there.

One one hand, our planet is becoming more crowded and connected, and we move more frequently and share more. Buildings are designed to maximize our collective experiences, whether they are high-rise towers, arenas or shopping malls. Then came the threats from nature, which we kept clearing in order to reap more natural resources. Fundamental questions for architecture – how to deal with natural environment, if we open towards it or shut from it, and, how to share space with others, are facing a new reality. 

How do architects answer to this daunting question?