In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, health care and service workers, elected officials, and citizens responded as fast as possible to the crisis.
To help make personal protective equipment, designers and everyday hobbyists turned to 3D printers, laser cutters, sewing machines and textiles. Architects and construction workers also quickly converted buildings into hospitals and emergency shelters.
Now what comes next? We can look to history for a hint.
Past pandemics have forced architecture and city planning to evolve, says architectural author and curator Sam Lubell.
Lubell joins DnA to talk about some of the innovations we might expect to see come out of the coronavirus pandemic.
Lubell says these innovations will advance some ideas that have started to emerge. That includes modular construction, fresh air A/C, and access to open space. We could also see people continue to telecommute in cities like Los Angeles and New York.
Megacities have been consuming all the resources and talent, according to Lubell.
“Places in the Rust Belt, for instance, haven't been able to come back as much because they aren't seen as important. I think the way that we have become more used to being remote is going to have profound effects on that,” he says.
In researching surfaces in future buildings, he keeps germs in mind: “I didn't even know this before, but copper is incredible at killing germs and viruses.”
Lubell draws from history to support these predictions.
The bubonic plague wiped out at least a third of Europe’s population in the 14th century, but it inspired the Renaissance cities we love today. Lubell writes in the LA Times that cities were “cleared of squalid and cramped living quarters, developed early quarantine facilities and opened larger and less cluttered public spaces.”
Yellow fever in the 18th century and cholera and smallpox in the 19th century brought broad boulevards to Paris, improved water systems in London, disease mapping and the early suburbs.
Lubell writes that “20th century tuberculosis, typhoid, polio and Spanish flu breakouts prompted urban planning, slum clearance, tenement reform, and waste management.” It prompted “modernism itself, with its airy spaces, single-use zoning (separating residential and industrial areas, for instance), cleaner surfaces (think glass and steel) and emphasis on sterility.”
Los Angeles owes its expansion largely to the influx of people with tuberculosis from east coast cities. Iconic modernist buildings like the 1929 Lovell Health House, designed by Richard Neutra, grew out of the preoccupation with Southern California’s healthful living.
Lubell also reflects on future efforts to make Los Angeles less sprawling and more clustered around mass transit. Might we see COVID-19 used as an argument against denser development?
“I think it's a million dollar question right now,” Lubell tells DnA. “It's not as simple as just go back to sprawl and go back to the unsustainable way we were living before. … It's got to be a lot more nuanced than that.”
This conversation is part of a DnA series that will explore various ways that this pandemic shapes design, architecture and city planning.