I assumed that 9/11 would be the singular, defining historical event of my lifetime—like Pearl Harbor, or the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Naively, it turns out. On April 3, the official death toll in New York due to the coronavirus exceeded the number of people who died in the Twin Towers. As of Memorial Day, the fatalities in the United States alone neared 100,000. How does one respond to calamity at such a scale, and which has such terrible economic, political, and social repercussions?
What scares me, almost as much as the hardship and loss of life, are pundits’ recurring invocations of Chernobyl—the suggestion being that now, as then, the systems in place cannot withstand the pressure.
A Feb. 13 essay in The Wall Street Journal asserted that just as the 1986 nuclear disaster revealed the rot in the Soviet system, the Communist Party of China’s duplicitous reaction to the pandemic exposed the limits of General Secretary Xi Jinping’s authoritarianism. As the virus spread stateside, opinion writers in The New York Times and The Washington Post drew the same analogy in reference to our own country.
Has the U.S.A. really sunk so low that it bears comparison to the U.S.S.R. at the end of the Cold War? Forty years of imperial overreach, legalized corruption, and mass disenfranchisement will do that.
The propagation of dissonant narratives and the ongoing assault on expertise have caught us in a vicious circle of mistrust and mismanagement. Systems that were struggling in steady state really are failing now, and the atmosphere of rancor and uncertainty can only make it harder to restart the economy and get society functioning again.
In such troubled times, it’s tempting—and sadly, perhaps even comforting—to retreat further into denial, tribalism, and ideological posturing, when what ought to drive discourse and decision-making is evidence-based assessment of cause and effect, and consensus-building around processes and outcomes. Would that it were so simple. But we must try.
I certainly don’t see architects retreating. I see them coming together. Historically, the profession hasn’t seemed attuned to crisis management—to keeping itself capable under duress of contributing to public health, safety, and welfare. Purpose and ability came and went with the economy. With climate increasingly top of mind, however, architects have been transcending their reputation as purveyors of luxury goods, and instead are embracing new methods and technologies, sharpening their business acumen, and bolstering their scientific and social bona fides. Despite the corrosion of so many other institutions, architecture is proving more resilient, and relevant, than ever.
As with climate change, practitioners are urgently developing necessary and proper solutions for combating the coronavirus, at the scale of the city, the building, and the body. Perhaps most visibly, a legion of volunteers is using digital modeling and fabrication tools to create desperately needed personal protective equipment. In this way and in many others, architects and designers are demonstrating the essential nature of their work. They are rising to the occasion with intelligence and altruism. When the sirens fade, when the emergency has finally passed, architecture will be able to look back on its contributions with pride.
A version of this article appeared in the May 2020 issue