The Coronavirus has slowed things down. The daily lives of many have become eerily similar: trapped within the confines of their homes, subject to a constant stream of anxiety-inducing alerts and preoccupied with hand washing. Though these activities are nothing new, the situation that surrounds them is entirely unprecedented. In the blink of an eye, the world has been completely turned on its head, highlighting a lot of unfortunate truths. Socio-economic divides have become clearer than ever. They’ve manifested in unequal access to healthcare, food, the internet and other basic resources, reflecting an overall lack of flexibility and security for the working class.
So where do architects stand in this partition, and what can they do to not only adjust but help? The first answer is simple. Architects and designers are part of the very fortunate group that can stay entirely indoors and keep a steady paycheck. Though site visits and trips to exhibitions have been put on hold, the relative security of those within this industry is being maintained through work-from-home solutions.
Answering the second question is a challenge and will likely remain one far after this pandemic subsides. Architectural critic, author, A+Awards Juror and new director of Virginia Tech’s School of Architecture + Design, Aaron Betsky, examined the issue in his piece “The Coronavirus, Meatspace, and Architecture”.
Betsky stated: “More and more of us live, work and play where we have to, rather than where we want to. We may have built the image of a society based on competitive capitalism and freedom of movement, but the outbreak of the virus has revealed how thin that freedom actually is.” Architecture is a reflection of our society and every element that comprises it, meaning the built environment is representative of the goods and evils of the systems that are in place. Good design isn’t accessible to all, leaving the poor to “… make do with whatever office, factory, housing block or refugee camp they find themselves in.”
Given that these are issues of space and movement, it’s clear that addressing the “where we have to, rather than where we want to” problem is something that architects could be called on to address. Betsky’s approach, however, steers away from the physical world and into the virtual, a realm that now comprises as much, if not more, of our lived experience as the physical one.
“For far too long, architecture has ignored what happens on our phones, pads, computers and other screens,” said Betsky. He continued: “This is not just a question of aesthetics, but of creating a feeling of belonging, of feeling at home, of making sense of the virtual space that we occupy for so many hours every day.” He argues that the character of virtual spaces are comparable to the built environment, in which many structures are mass-produced and generic.
The equivalent of good architecture and the experiences it provides is not common in the virtual world. Yet, the potential of digital capabilities is seemingly limitless and more attainable than a nice home or office. As the world comes to terms with its current situation, the design of our virtual ‘architecture’ is increasingly relevant to the broader discourse regarding the future of architecture.
The architecture and design industries must begin to consider how the practice of spatial design will evolve in an increasingly digitized world, moving at exponential speeds. The Coronavirus pandemic is merely a reminder of the increasing urgency of this task. Most importantly, this adaptation is not only important for architecture and design but for the world, as a whole. Digital architecture promise to increase accessibility, ensuring all people — not just a select few — are able to experience the fruits of good design.