Although not the first chronicled pandemic, the Black Death is the well-known benchmark – Plague 1.0. World population was reduced by more than 20%. Life in urban centers must have been horrible, but like today, the affluent were shielded from it. As portrayed by Giovanni Boccaccio in his fictionalized account The Decameron, 10 young male and female aristocrats flee Florence to Fiesole in order to escape the ravages of the plague. They pass the time telling each other one story each over 10 days (hence the title). Judging from the content of the stories, which range from ribald satire to poking fun at the economic seats of power, these 10 were the liberal elite of their time. It is hard to believe the stories were written in 1353.
Plague 1.0 could have spelled the end of urban life, yet over the centuries the lure of the city has persisted. In fact, past bacterial pandemics like the Black Death have spurred design innovations like sewer systems, now prosaic, separating germs from humans so humans would not need to be separated from each other.
Although the Black Death simmered down, it did not vanish; its most recent notable appearance was the San Francisco plague. Chinatown was the epicenter, recognized by public health authorities in 1900, but denied by politicians, including the governor, for fear of economic distress caused by quarantines. Sound familiar? As a direct consequence, that governor lost the 1902 election, and the epidemic was contained. A few years later, the famous 1906 earthquake and fire destroyed most of the city – along with the memory of the San Francisco Plague.
Almost 700 years later, another benchmark pandemic, Plague 2.0, is upon us, but this time a mysterious virus rather than a bacterium. It has taken over normal life as we knew it worldwide and will have lasting effects, especially in cities. Viral pandemics propagate via person to person contact – posing a more difficult design conundrum.
Now, most of us are (or should be) sheltering in place. It has given us time to reflect.
Architects, for the most part, are idealists but have little power to affect change beyond altering the built environment one building at a time. Moreover, we architects need someone to foot the bill for our creations. While we are not students of economics, it controls what is actually built, not necessarily what should be built. This was true in Boccaccio’s time, too – since then, the economic seat of power has merely shifted from the church to big business. Economic growth is the mantra; a cynic would say we live in a kind of “greed-ocracy.”
Plague 2.0 has allowed us to push PAUSE on the economic engine, and has exposed all kinds of greed-centric proclivities. Despite centuries of progress on many fronts, the gap between rich and poor remains vast, and has grown significantly in the past decade. The stock market is not a mirror of the economy, and like much of business, it operates like a casino, further expanding this gap. For a while, due to low worldwide demand, fossil fuel producers were paying customers to take oil (on paper, anyway), because there was nowhere to put it. The “efficiencies” of centralized agriculture are causing crops destined for chain restaurants to be plowed under while lines at food banks are increasing daily.
At the same time, economic inactivity has caused the planet to quiet down, measurably so. Seismologists have been able to detect the smallest tremblors because of background vibrations due to what used to be normal traffic have diminished substantially(1). People have noticed birds chirping in the city even though they have been chirping all along. In an astonishingly short time, both air and water quality have improved considerably, which shows the planet can actually recover from the onslaught of pollutants we sadly deemed acceptable only a few months ago.
What do these reflections portend for us architects?
In the short term, institutions and businesses on the edge before this all started may close over it and take some of us with them. Art museums are considering selling some of their collections to stay afloat by means of a practice euphemistically called de-acquisition. Fewer than 50% of restaurants are likely to reopen; bricks-and-mortar retail will continue to experience low sales as consumers perceive online shopping to be safer. Design firms serving these sectors may disappear.
The handshake may vanish from social decorum forever, but life at six-feet-on-center may be temporary until the coronavirus is contained. Our current condition doesn’t justify the wholesale makeover of all interior spaces, but designers will be taxed to come up with interim social distancing strategies for the foreseeable future, especially ones that are not overly opportunistic or gimmicky.
Plague 2.0 will undoubtedly have some long lasting, perhaps permanent, design consequences. Ironically, the invention that made the modern office building possible will become its biggest liability. Elevators are potential virus hot-spots, and recommended social distancing is impossible in this smallest of all interior spaces. Unable to pack into elevators, people will experience significant delays getting to and from the office. This fact alone will be a huge deterrent to the pre-pandemic return of normal office activity.
Furthermore white collar workers equipped to work from home have shown CEOs that expensive physical office space may not be essential. The tech giants in the San Francisco Bay Area have already changed work-from-home policies – most mandating working from home until the end of the year, and at least one (Twitter) forever. Driven by the greed-ocratic paradigm, companies will certainly shrink their physical footprints. The skyline of most cities is unlikely to change, but its contents may. Cities lacking affordable housing, like San Francisco, are likely to see office buildings converted to residential use.
But the office building will not cease to exist wholeheartedly. People will still covet gathering in urban centers to exchange ideas in person. However, getting in and out of cities will be a horizontal version of the elevator dilemma – fewer people will be comfortable using public transportation now more than ever. Infrastructure in most American cities has been in deplorable decline well before the pandemic, and there has been minimal political or economic will to do anything about it for decades. For cities to remain sustainable, infrastructure improvements, especially mass transit, are now especially urgent.
In our current political atmosphere, Plague 2.0 has already been used to justify assaults on the environment to foster short-sighted economic growth. Some have argued we have been living in another, even more devastating pandemic for decades: climate change. Unlike the coronavirus and its immediate economic consequences, the effects of climate change have been emerging incrementally. But very much like the coronavirus, climate change has been invisible to many as they carry on daily lives and thus easy to politicize. Counteracting the effects of both require trust in logic, long-view planning, and economic investment. Wouldn’t it be nice to think that our leaders could reflect on these points and put forward policies focused on long-term balance rather than short term profit (and electability) – perhaps something like a Green New Deal?
Boccaccio does not tell us if his band of 10 returned to Florence or not, but we do know that the city survived Plague 1.0 and emerged to become the world’s center of art and culture 100 years later. Depending on the outcome of the November elections, odds are we will live beyond Plague 2.0, too.
(1) Andrews, Robin George: “Coronavirus Turns Urban Life’s Roar to Whisper on World’s Seismographs.” New York Times, April 8, 2020