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Architecture after the coronavirus

What happens when nobody wants to get on an elevator?

We've been looking at design after the coronavirus: urban design, interior design, even bathroom design. Oliver Wainwright of the Guardian has been looking at these issues and has talked to a number of architects and planners about where they think architecture is going.

Zonnestraal© Zonnestraal Sanatorium/ Jaan Duiker

He notes that this is not a new phenomenon, reminding us of the roots of modernism (a regular topic here on TreeHugger), with my emphasis on a great turn of phrase:

…the wipe-clean aesthetic of modernism was partly a result of tuberculosis, with light-flooded sanatoriums inspiring an era of white-painted rooms, hygienic tiled bathrooms and the ubiquitous mid-century recliner chair. Form has always followed fear of infection, just as much as function.

He asks a pile of important questions: “Will homes need to adapt to better accommodate work? Will pavements widen so we can keep our distance? Will we no longer want to live so densely packed together, working in open-plan offices and cramming into lifts?” He wonders about the future of co-working spaces (as we have) and sees changes in office designs, with a move away from open plans.

It’s a hunch shared by Arjun Kaicker, who led the workplace team at Foster and Partners for a decade, influencing the gargantuan new HQ for both Apple and Bloomberg. “I think we’ll see wider corridors and doorways, more partitions between departments, and a lot more staircases,” says Kaicker, who now heads analytics and insights at Zaha Hadid Architects. “Everything has been about breaking down barriers between teams, but I don’t think spaces will flow into each other so much any more.”

The end of the elevator as we know it?

Kaicker suggests that all of this will make super-tall buildings less attractive or efficient. He also sees a hands-free future where we use our own phones for everything, including calling elevators. Office doors will all be out of Star Trek, opening automatically using facial recognition.

I suspect we will see a lot more office buildings like this one for BDO in Copenhagen – not as high, and with grand open stairs that provide a great, healthy option to taking the elevator. They will lead to office space built out at far lower density, with more square feet per person, but companies probably won't need more space because more people will be working from home.

This may all prove a boon for ThyssenKrupp and its MULTI elevator, which has tiny lightweight cabs (barely big enough for me and engineer Dennis Poon of Thornton Tomasetti) that run continuously like a paternoster elevator; since there are many cabs running in one shaft you don't have to crowd in, you just wait for the next one.

Stair in MunichApartment stair in Munich/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

In residential buildings I do wish it would all lead to changes in the building code to permit buildings like they build in Europe, where there are grand open stairs in the middle of the relatively low buildings; the elevator is used primarily by those who have trouble with stairs or have lots of groceries. We will probably never be able to do this in North America, thanks to the completely different approach to fire safety, but we could at least make stairs more prominent, generous and beautiful.

Will this lead to more walkable cities?

Whereas a lot of American planners are worried that the pandemic will send people back to their cars and the suburbs, Wainwright speaks to European planners who see other opportunities.

“This is the best time ever to think of a walkable city,” says Wouter Vanstiphout, professor of design as politics at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands. “Could coronavirus be a catalyst for decentralisation? We have these enormous hospitals and people living on top of each other, but still having to travel long distances across the city to get to them. The pandemic suggests we should distribute smaller units such as hospitals and schools across more of the urban tissue and strengthen local centres.”

Perhaps it will encourage us to distribute people into smaller buildings, like those in Munich; they are tall enough to get reasonable densities, but not so tall that you cannot comfortably take those open stairs in the middle of the buildings.

Will things actually change at all?

Of course, it might be that nothing changes at all. 9/11 didn't kill skyscrapers and as Wainwright notes, SARS didn't kill high-rise apartments.

But a hundred years ago, changing the way we built our cities made a huge difference in the health and well-being of people across Europe and North America, and it was done without drugs. Professor Dame Sally Davies wrote in The Drugs Don't Work:

Almost without exception, the decline in deaths from the biggest killers at the beginning of the twentieth century predates the introduction of antimicrobial drugs for civilian use at the end of the Second World War. Just over half the decline in infectious diseases had occurred before 1931. The main influences on the decline of mortality were better nutrition, improved hygiene and sanitation, and less dense housing, all of which helped to prevent and to reduce transmission of infectious diseases.

Basically, they did it with design. Perhaps in the face of the medical challenges we face, between pandemics and antibiotic resistance, it's time to think about the kind of design changes we should make now.