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The architect’s dilemma at the time of pandemic: Should architecture favour social distance, or foster social interaction?

Architecture often embodies the future, designing a building, a public square or even a bench is about envisioning how a future user will relate to that building, square and or bench. Consequently, during the current worldwide shutdown, the profession of visualizing the future has radically changed, in a matter of days, and it continues to change.

Changing human behaviour and lifestyle

As with all major occurrences, things will never be the same. 9/11 did not stop us from flying, but it changed the way we fly completely. The current pandemic may cause major changes as well: living, working and moving will change and so will the way we design them. A week ago, architects were fostering interactions, designing office spaces of seven square meters per person. Will this rule of thumb be valid in a world where you need to maintain social distance of at least 1,5 meters one from each other? How will this affect sharing economy, as well as the so-called co-working, co-making, and co-living trends? We know that the need for open-air communal space is key for mental and physical wellbeing. How can we continue to address this need and provide these spaces while answering to stricter health regulations? The blurred boundaries between public and private may have to find a new balance between health and safety and a sense of community. Within our homes, open spaces will turn into complex living environments. Creating multifunctional spaces will be new norm. For example, remote working will force us to have at least one neutral background for our new reality of many video calls.

Micro-communities as social networks

While we consider ourselves ‘citizens of the world’, the current quarantine is forcing us to relate to micro-communities generated by spontaneous interactions. From our home’s balconies, from our front lawn’s, our social network suddenly limited to individuals we can communicate with from a short but safe distance. Could this be a glimpse into the future, where we can expect the facilitation of inclusive actions, social benefits and community engagement? Intertwining intangible elements that cultivate mental health in everyday life in urban and architectural projects is crucial to create impactful and successful developments that elevate the human experience. Developing inclusive solutions to serve the needs of the local population, and involving the local community and stakeholders in the development of architectural projects, will not only be a plus in a rating system, but an inevitable starting point.

Social distancing vs social interaction

When designing the new piazza or concert hall, architects have to face an ever-evolving dilemma: should they favour social distancing, or foster social interaction? China’s reaction and solutions to the pandemic do not seem encouraging in this sense. While cities are beginning to reopen, a series of precautions to significantly limit the aggregation of people are being implemented, perpetuating the concept of social distancing. An architect’s responsibility is to facilitate the opposite, integrating design technologies to mitigate the risks of contagion, such as thermal scanners, pedestrian monitoring, dynamic lanes flows, rapid access to testing and emergency facilities. Designing for human behavior is more important than ever. That’s why the architects now and in the future will have to interact more and more with sociologists, behavioral designers and philosophers, to generate a significant and positive impact on people’s lives.

Towards a new urban concept

In the case of cities, a mantra that architects and urbanists worldwide has been using for the last ten years: “urbanisation at a breakneck speed is inevitable” will have to be rethought and not taken as a simple eventuality. Pandemic will definitely invert this trend: after weeks of quarantine, locked in our micro-environments nestled in ghost towns, naturally dreams evolve into visions of greenery and peace. Green buildings are simply not enough: admiring a lush green wall by Patrick Blanc may feel like more of the same as it was never intended to be the only source of variety in everyday life. Responsiveness and flexibility will be urged far more for the built environment and urban regeneration. The ability to adapt itself to imminent social needs will affect the way the future cities run. Planning new developments so that they can be easily reorganized is a far more resilient solution: an initiative that reduces costs, risks and waste. Nature builds everything with simple, distributed, flexible parts. As various visionary architects from the past have done, we should again try to replicate natural metrics and patterns that guide the evolution of the urban context that has a constant need to reshape interactions according to the changing natural and social environment.

The values of architecture as a glimpse into the future

Observing our empty cities, seemingly devoid of residents, has brought the focus back to their tangible and intangible essence: architecture. Emptiness has made the inner symbolic value of architecture clear: its active role in the creation of our common and intimate identity – we are our cities, our streets, our monuments. And they in turn, shape our culture, society and interactions in an ever-changing exchange. Pandemic could be the catalyst that changes how we think about architecture at every scale, bringing back the original reasons we design – to create environments that not only shape everyday life but that are also symbols of human advancement. In the end, isn’t this the final aim of every designer: to save people through beauty? Today more than ever we understand the importance of space, and the beauty that can be achieved through its effective and adaptable use. Only when we return to that beauty which we had taken for granted, will we feel alive again.

Giovanni de Niederhäusern, Senior Vice President Architecture
Samuele Sordi, Chief Architect in Pininfarina USA
Marco Bortolussi, Marketing Specialist

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