WAF Newsletter - A model for the post-pandemic city - June 2021

A model for the post-pandemic city

Susana Rosmaninho, 22 June 2021

Rapid and widespread dissemination of a virus is an image for a contemporary world strongly marked by globalisation, where everything is connected, writes Susana Rosmaninho.

This is a world where almost everyone travels, where a few hours are enough for a delivery to reach us. The diffusion networks are extraordinarily vast and conducive to the transportation of individuals and goods, as well as to the dissemination of any highly contagious virus like the one we are facing today.

Looking at a map of intense flows and movements between major economic centres, between partners in industry, in the food sector or the tourist destinations to which we all actively contribute, is to see the face of global ‘de-territorialisation’. As it spread, the pandemic virus did no more than travel this world map. And in no time at all, the planet was paralysed by a health emergency for which the real social, political and economic consequences cannot yet be assessed.

Tracking Covid-19 (Bloomberg)

Although it is said that we are in the presence of the greatest interruption to ‘normality’ and daily life since World War II, it is important to remember that this is not the first virus or pandemic we have experienced, and it will certainly not be the last. Being aware of this allows us to reflect on a much broader response to the problem. The incidence and severity with which the virus affects each country or population depends proportionally on its social conditions. Epidemics ‘only’ expose and amplify social, racial and economic inequalities, where having a dwelling in which we may be confined is already a reflection of a very specific context.

We should not lose the ability to analyse the problem from a global perspective, so I think that the role of architecture is to reflect, at different scales and in different contexts, a holistic approach that achieves the best possible balanced response. The questions are many and, naturally, still very speculative, like any reflection that is made during this period. The benefits of dense, overpopulated cities are being questioned, where the concentration of inhabitants/m2 is high and so, therefore, are the contagion ratios. New models for urbanising cities are being analysed, where the introduction of green spaces not only contribute the ‘lungs’ of the city, but also makes it possible to lower population density and create barriers against contagion.

There are those who believe that we can return to a more rural model of society, with a more intimate contact with nature. But will cities have to change their hardware? Or will it be enough to change the way we use cities so that we can easily adapt them to crisis scenarios? Will the pandemic impose new problems on organisational logics or just amplify the problems that already exist? The fast adaptation to teleworking and the virtualisation of social and professional relations have proven that remote work is more and more a possibility for the contemporary world. And, indeed, this would enable us to live in a more dispersed, rural and isolated model of organisation (a model advocated by many).

But wouldn't this be the path to a more segmented, closed and divided society, where emergence would give way to individualism and isolation? Would it be viable from the point of view of resources and infrastructure? Would it not be ecologically irresponsible? There will always be families living in big cities with a cottage in a remote place to which they go on holiday or to escape a pandemic. But I don't think that is at all the answer for the future, especially when caring for the planet is our urgent priority.

Interviewed by Andreas Ruby, director of the SAM (Swiss Architecture Museum), for one of the many online conversations that have taken place in this period, Jacques Herzog expressed his concern for radical models of urbanism, and advocated an objective and thoughtful approach to cities. He suggests the concept of campus, with obvious parallels to monastic organisations where there is a poly-functional lifestyle. In his view, the answer could be to move away from mono-functional city areas (or even buildings) towards programmes that complement each other and result in self-sufficient campuses. In the round, a city could be a set of small agglomerations, an articulation between campuses, between units, where nature interpenetrates, but always in a logic contrary to that of dispersal.

In this way, not only would it be possible to control a pandemic locally in times of crisis, but we would also be closer to the logic of a collective and local community, with the wealth of its own identity and geographical context. Moreover, our responsibility is to maintain the biosphere and natural resources as much as possible – we cannot exclude them from any response or adaptation to new city models. Thinking about these poly-functional campuses, with public spaces on a local scale, green belts and transmission barriers helping us to reduce global warming and introduce spaces for outdoor pleasure, seems to me a path with a future.

So we might promote multi-functional buildings that are flexible in terms of use and typology, mixed programmatic areas, creating several lungs associated with such campuses and designing according to a collective logic. As I mentioned before, the character of any reflection in this period is merely speculative. Responses will not be identical. Each continent, culture or country will have to respond on its own timescale, with its own resources and identity.

Viruses mutate all the time. But the circumstances in which a mutation becomes a threat to life depend on human actions; we cannot retreat from our social responsibility to think about and work towards a better future. Together, of course.

Susana Rosmaninho is a WAF judge at this year’s Lisbon Festival

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