In Conversation: Pandemic Architecture

A still from Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Rear Window’ (1954): private and public lives juxtaposed through open windows and balconies.

Joanna Lake is a recent part I Architecture graduate from the University of Cambridge, currently architectural assistant at a London based firm. Interviewed by Julia Lasica.

I sit down at my laptop on a cold and grey Friday afternoon to talk to an old friend, Joanna, over Zoom. She soon pops up on my screen and we begin to chat. Joanna is a recent architecture graduate, currently working at a London based architecture firm. For the past year or so, we have sporadically exchanged thoughts over WhatsApp on windows, buildings during the pandemic, empty office blocks, and front gardens. Sitting down to talk to her today, I am keen to have a lengthier conversation with her: I want to find out how Joanna has rethought buildings and space as a result of the pandemic, and how she thinks COVID might influence architectural design in the future.

Undoubtedly, one of the greatest changes in our behaviour during the pandemic has been our decreased use of public spaces. By sheer chance, Joanna was studying ‘Public Life’ as part of her third-year final project. ‘We spent a lot of time focusing on the value of public spaces, especially places like libraries. So, when the pandemic hit, it was so surreal to be promoting this sort of space as a crucial part of society when it was the last place anyone wanted to be back in March,’ Joanna says.  

It is true: I remember being aware even of the droplets leaving someone else’s mouth as I walked past them even in the open air let alone in an indoor setting, I tell Joanna. But did she find that alternative public spaces emerged as we grappled with the new COVID-reality? ‘Yes! In the village I live in with my family, all the houses are clustered around a single road: that street became our equivalent of a village hall. During communal celebrations like VE Day or Christmas, it would become a ceremonial avenue. We would wander up and down it, saying hello to neighbours in their front gardens, looking in through their front windows at their decorations. It took on the functions of a community hall or parish centre, and its reappropriation has only been possible because of COVID.’

“COVID has given us a sneak peak into what a human, repurposed street might look like”

As Joanna talks, I think about walking along the streets near my home in London. Some, I tell Joanna, have been blocked off since the beginning of the pandemic and made one way through the recent government Low Traffic Neighbourhoods scheme. They have become much more accessible: I feel safe walking down the middle and have even seen children playing along the street. It is a vision of a city street which is completely new to me.

But according to Joanna, it is something which has been around for a while: COVID merely provided the chance to try it out. A lot of architects have envisioned how streets might become entirely pedestrianised. The Smithsons, two British architects working in the second half of the twentieth century, wanted to lift terraced houses up into the air and build streets in the sky. So, their city would be based on two layers, the traffic below and the streets above, neither interfering with the other. It is radical but COVID has given us a sneak peek into what a human, repurposed street might look like.’

Empty windows in the Shard (author’s own image)

As we reimagine the roads of the future, I hear families chatting as they walk along the pavement outside. My thoughts turn to an area which is much quieter at the moment: the inner-city. On a recent cycle, I felt as if I was in a ghost town. My image passed over CLOSED signs and bare mannequins in shop windows. When darkness fell, empty offices lit up inside. Looking up, I didn’t see a single person move in their interiors. ‘The decline of the inner-city has opened up a totally new question for architects and city planners,’ Joanna says, ‘What are we going to do with all that space?’

So, I muse with her, what would you put in an empty office block? ‘Libraries!’ Joanna answer immediately, laughing and referring back to her final university project. ‘Or at least somewhere like a public square on a sunny day, where the point isn’t about spending money but about relaxing and meeting other people. It would be easy to just turn offices into more housing but we should be investing our available space into places we can use together as a community, rather than designing for people to live even more isolated lives away from each other.’

But until this day comes, has Joanna noticed any ways in which we have learned to cope with our current isolation? She points to the existing thresholds between private and public spaces: ‘entrances to people’s homes, front gardens, windows, and doors have really risen in prominence. They have always been places to express yourself,’ Joanna explains. ‘We have been putting up Christmas decorations, plants, and political posters in our windows for ages. But now they are our main portals into the world: just think of children putting up rainbows in windows back in spring.’

A still from Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Rear Window (1954)

Those moment when private and public mix have become poignant, I remark. ‘Oh, definitely,’ Joanna agrees, ‘they have always been very theatrical. Balconies in high-rises houses are a prime example because you look from them and you are also watched. But now, going on a walk and glimpsing other people through windows, seeing that they are also going through similar days: it immediately lowers my sense of isolation and I feel comforted to know that I am not alone in communicating with others almost solely through a screen.’

“We should be investing our available space into places we can use together, rather than designing for people to live even more isolated lives away from each other”

So far, we have talked a lot about the architectural spaces we have rethought as a result of the pandemic and our optimistic visions of the future. But what are the concrete lessons that Joanna is drawing as an architect, at the very beginning of her career, from the current crisis? ‘I think something I will definitely carry forward with me from this is that we have to design more resilient and flexible spaces, not least because of COVID but also crises such as the climate emergency. During this pandemic, we have shown we can adapt: my bedroom has been my office, space to relax, gym and dining room. The form of a room doesn’t need to dictate its functions: this is definitely an attitude which will influence the way we design spaces in the future.’

But what about homes which are just too small to make such adaptability possible? ‘This is definitely a huge problem. WFH assumes everyone has a space to work but even from a legislative point of view, it is actually illegal to run a business from certain council houses. But I don’t think the solution lies in building bigger flats.’ Instead, Joanna points to the overarching theme of our conversation: public space. ‘Co-working spaces could definitely hold a place in future housing. The Balfron tower in London is an example of this: there, the main housing block is connected to a skinnier tower, which has communal spaces for all the residents to use.’

Office windows (author’s own image)

Much of our conversation has centred around the reimagining of public spaces, whether the street, the inner-city, or the windows between public and private. But something else which has also emerged has been Joanna’s keen interest in designing specifically for the human. At the end of our conversation, Joanna tells me about the dérives (‘drifts’) of Parisian philosophers in the mid twentieth century. ‘The point of a dérive would be to wander around a city and purposefully get lost in familiar surroundings. Afterwards, the journey would be mapped, and the city divided into different zones based on the experiences the wanderer had there. Roads weren’t the main organisers of a city but rather the visuals, textures, sounds, that were experienced there.’

As Joanna talks, I imagine we have gone on an imaginary dérive together. Passing over the familiar settings we once knew before the pandemic, we have reconsidered them: their role for us humans in our perception and experience of them will never be the same. And who knows, perhaps we will see evidence of that shift in the buildings and spaces which surround us.