Updated: Mar 10
The last two years were unlike any other as they brought us a few unexpected surprises and packed a few punches, changing life as we know it. In a world where we are constantly aiming to step out of our comfort zones, the current Covid-19 pandemic has forced us to step back in and build a box around us. It has also brought to light how unsafe and vulnerable our public spaces, built and
un-built environment, products, and their interfaces are. If anything, what history has repeatedly shown us and studies have confirmed is that this is not the first nor will it be the last time something like this takes over the world, so safe to say we need to expect the unexpected.
So why don't we do what we do as architects and designers? Think out of the box and re-imagine architecture and design to suit the whims of a virus that (hopefully not) might be here to stay. In the 2 years that were spent indoors in fear of the deadly virus, people have already come up with a concoction of interesting innovations and inventions, albeit short- term, that helped make life easier in this testing time. Starting from hands-free door openers to 3D printed manual ventilators, designers have had their hands full with solving pandemic specific problems. We have witnessed numerous instances of how design has had an impact in containing this situation, public transportation parts converted into patient care units, Quick-Deploy Intensive Care Units, Sanitary Food Transfer Window etc, to name a few.
With the arrival of a global pandemic and governments enforcing lock-downs most of us rejoiced with Iron man's voice in our head saying 'Earth is closed today. But as days turned into months, and months into years, we had to adopt new habits and routines all the while in isolation from the streets outside.
Social Distancing & Work from Home
The lock-downs forced us to isolate ourselves to maintain social distance and threw off our work-life balance with work from home (WFH) made mandatory. According to a survey, the Indian IT industry made about 90% of employees work from home with 65% of them from homes in metros and the rest 35% from homes in small towns. With the smooth running of businesses and consistent results for clients, without lowering the quality of work and the added advantage of saving energy and electricity costs, many companies including giants like Twitter have decided on adopting WFH as a permanent setting. Apart from WFH, an alternative approach is working from small towns instead of metro-cities. Several companies like Twitter have demonstrated that this model can indeed work.
As working from home and remote offices came into being, it’s time to rethink our concepts of a home and an office and maybe even create a hybrid between them. Earlier the whole idea of home remained to be mostly a place to unwind and relax after a long day at work, a place to take your mind off ‘work’. But what to do if you can’t leave your work at a physical office? What to do when your home becomes the office? There comes a need for a variety in spatial experiences, spaces that cater to the expected user experience. Some might find it difficult to work with distractions at home, some might find it easier to work at the familiar comfort of their homes, either way the spaces have to be capable of offering the desired experience. This variety in space will also help with combating burnout and monotony in daily life.
Remote offices could have modular spaces with partitions, storage, or even vegetation to act as barriers, instead of an open-plan office. Spaces that can be multi-functional when the need be, no home can have spaces dedicated to all activities hence flexibility in space has become a very important factor. For people living in small apartments and places with space constrictions, a multi-functional or convertible workspace or corner would be a practical solution to separate ' work' from 'home’. Balconies, backyards, or any form of spill-outs should be considered a necessity rather than an accessory to prevent our shelters from turning into prisons in times of such crisis. These balconies could be glass partitioned to create your very own office with a view! Another welcome development is the increased affinity to inviting greenery into the interiors, people are becoming more conscious of the necessity of bringing the outside in. There has been a steep spike in the number of proud plant parents and for good reason, greenery adds that touch of warmth into spaces.
The need to establish a private workspace for each individual is magnified in a shared living space. Creative inventions like the Pennsylvania-based Snapcab portable home office pods, which can be placed inside apartment complexes or houses, cater to these needs are some of the examples.
Changes in Public Spaces
One of the many challenges we face is maintaining social distance in a public space. Spaces where the crowd gathers, like parks, malls and theaters are the ones that will need a total makeover if the current condition persists. All around the world tech geeks, entrepreneurs, designers, and architects are coming up with creative new innovations to extend our personal bubbles to 6ft. A picture of customers at the popular Cafe & Konditorei Rothe in Schwerin, Germany, wearing hats with pool noodles attached to them, gained a lot of popular attention from the internet. These long foam water toys make it difficult for customers to get within six feet of each other. An amusing sight that puts a smile behind the masks of people all around the world.
A restaurant in Maryland USA introduced a new fun invention called 'bumper tables’. They use a large inner tube to keep diners apart and have wheels which makes it mobile to the cafe street fronts and car parks to enjoy some fish and chips on wheels!
The pandemic has also been a time that immensely stimulated the inherent ingenuity in us, resulting in such amusements.
We also brought back the 50's with our drive-in cinemas and concerts. Creating new experiences for some and bringing back old ones for others. Creative ways to ensure social distancing would involve having metered walkways or seating and using subtle elements like landscape as a separator. In June, New York initiated the Open Restaurants Program, allowing food joints and eateries to expand their activity onto public space. The measure proved widely successful, and the municipality decided to make it permanent and year-round, as part of New York's long-term recovery plan. A re-imagination and utilization of public spaces is what has been evident in these unprecedented times. The multiple ways in which these areas could be molded and contorted has been touched upon and needs to be explored more.
Chris Precht's ingenious 'parc de la distance' is a park envisioned for social distancing and a short-term solitude in the wake of COVID-19. With its lush green hedges and red granite gravel, the whole park controls the traffic of the space by saying green means 'distance' and red means 'walk'. Although Precht designed the park in response to the current corona-virus outbreak he believes that a social-distance park would be a beneficial environment for cities after the pandemic. The pandemic has constantly reminded us of our inherent biophilia, the need for us to stay connected to nature in some way or the other.
Domino Park, New York has
presented a progression of painted social distancing circles. This strategic urban structure mediation guarantees that the visitors are maintaining social distance and government mandates, but not at the cost of healthy visiting activities. The park formed social circles in its open shared environment during the pandemic. The project produces a series of chalk-painted circles on the intervention putting in place 30 circles: each circle 8 feet in diameter and 6 feet apart, a social distance that instantly became a hit among the visitors!
The pandemic and lock-down coupled together have also had people contemplating on their previous ways of life and a realization of how that was not the ideal has dawned upon many, this will immensely affect the approach on design solutions going forward in a post-pandemic era. Globally there is a centered effort to strive for more sustainable long-term solutions. Hence, this necessity for newer, innovative and better solutions for even everyday mundane things will keep growing. This time of crisis has amply demonstrated that as architects and designers, we have to provide solutions for issues specific to the times. This calls for proper research-backed, tested solutions by sensitive and responsible designers who are aware of the users’ psyche and needs. The quote ‘Diagnose with data and treat with design’ amply conveys how one should approach a design problem. Data cannot solve problems. It can only help you identify and understand them. Design is the treatment, the phase where you brainstorm all the ways that the problem can be solved.
At this point, we don’t have the luxury to predict what our needs will be in the next 6 months. If the bygone years have taught us anything it is that we can never be prepared enough. We are yet to see through how a post-pandemic life would be, what our needs would be like in another year. We might be looking for alternatives to everything that we ever knew in our lives to pave the way for a healthier, safer life.
Let's be precautious and prepare for a post-covid world. Until then, put on your masks, sharpen your pencils and let this post be the stencil for your next design exercise.
Written by Feby Susan Philip & Angella Darling J