Designing the Future
How the pandemic will change our world.
Without civic morality, communities perish; without personal morality, their survival has no value.—Bertrand Russell
The round-the-clock drumbeat of news about coronavirus pounds us with tragic statistics: 2 million cases worldwide and more than 100,000 deaths. At press time, deaths from coronavirus in the United States had surpassed Italy's total to be the highest in the world at more than 25,000. As the economy crashes, the number of people unemployed is soaring toward 20 million.
In architecture firms, a cascade of layoffs and furloughs has begun.
But if there is any upside to the coronavirus crisis, it is in the response of communities—health-care workers first and foremost; grocery-store clerks and bus drivers still on the job; and volunteers, helping formally or informally, including architects fabricating face masks and shields, or using their expertise to expand and convert facilities to care for the deluge of sick patients.
And there are ad hoc communities, too, who rise up in cities around the world and throw open their windows to cheer those on the front lines of the pandemic.
Can all this human electricity, fueling the common good, be harnessed beyond the current crisis? Before coronavirus cases were even close to peaking, writers and thinkers were already asking how our world will be different on the other side. Some have raised the specter of authoritarianism, as most of us have been taking stringent orders from the top. But others believe that the values exemplified in this moment will persist. People will “become newly conscious of interdependency and community,” predicts author Jonathan Rauch, writing in Politico. For sociologist Eric Klinenberg, the “pandemic marks the end of our romance with market society and hyper-individualism . . . When this ends, we will reorient our politics and make substantial new investments in public goods—for health, especially—and public services.”
His point is well taken: for one thing, the virus has disproportionally infected African Americans and the poor, and rampaged through homeless shelters and housing for the disabled.
Obviously, too, we will work in new ways, with the wider use of digital tools for toiling together while being apart. But schools are likely to change less, as education—including architectural—is suffering from inequality and the lack of personal contact.
And there will be paradoxes to face. While carbon emissions dropped radically as the streets emptied of cars, urban dwellers might not rush to mass transit. And density is already being questioned. “Denser cities are more energy-efficient,” the urbanist Richard Sennett pointed out in The Guardian, but “there is going to be a conflict between the competing demands of public health and the climate.”
Architects can play a major role in navigating this uncertain future, through reimagining health care, housing, transportation, and the public realm as sustainable systems that are more equitable for diverse communities and conflicting concerns.
Michael Sorkin, who died of coronavirus on March 26 and was a longtime contributing editor of record, imagined the city in an era of autonomous vehicles and flying Ubers (record, April 2017). Yet this future, he maintained, “must include the defense of many of our traditional gathering places—our squares, plazas, parks, and sidewalks . . . We move to live, to experience the other, to engage the pleasures of place, to collaborate, to enjoy happy accidents of encounter, and to enlarge the space of the political, which demands the verifying integrity of the face-to-face.”
Like Sorkin, William Menking, the founding editor in chief of The Architect’s Newspaper, who died of lymphoma on April 11, was a civic moralist. Menking, who was trained as an architect but worked as a curator and writer, as well as an editor, recently helped start the Grace Farms Foundation’s initiative to end modern slavery and child labor in the supply chain of architectural products (record, September 2019). And, like Sorkin, he was a teacher. Both influenced legions of architects to believe they can make a difference in shaping the world.
While we honor those who contributed so much to the ideas around architecture and urbanism, we also look to the future: in this issue, record presents Design Vanguard 2020, our annual awards program for distinguished young practices from around the globe. And we are pleased to publish a stunning new project by Grafton Architects, founded by Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara, who are this year’s Pritzker Prize winners, the first women partners to be so honored. That is a promising sign for a future of greater equity and civic morality. With coronavirus still raging, we just can’t be sure when the future will begin.