My sleep schedule, which is erratic in the best of times, has gone completely haywire since COVID-19 reached our shores. I’m spending nights staring at the ceiling, clenching and unclenching my jaws, and fitfully checking Twitter for news. Overreaction? The fact that they’re digging mass graves in Iran suggests otherwise. Panicking about the health crisis triggers a cascade of crises. If the disease itself wasn’t bad enough, the economic fallout is heart-attack inducing. It’s tough to keep calm in the face of so much uncertainty, especially when the inherent nature of the situation prevents us from carrying on as usual.
The priority, of course, is to stay safe and healthy, which (as you hopefully already know) means washing your hands frequently, touching your face as little as possible, and avoiding contact with other people. To that end, AIA has made the smart and timely decision to postpone its May conference in Las Vegas, and other design organizations, schools, and firms are reacting to the pandemic similarly. “Maintaining Business Continuity with a Remote Workforce,” by Evelyn Lee, AIA, is an excellent resource.
Tech and practice editor Wanda Lau has contacted seven practices to learn how they were coping. All of them emphasized the importance of heightened internal and external communication. Not surprisingly, they all also restricted or banned travel and asked staff to work from home. (Telecommuting had already become so prevalent, it appears, that many firms had the necessary infrastructure in place before the crisis started.) Just one firm mentioned project cancellations; another is monitoring building-product supply chains for disruptions; none mentioned construction labor or staffing absences—though clearly, circumstances are evolving rapidly.
The injunction to self-quarantine poses a dilemma for the profession. Architecture is, among many other things, a form of social science. Architects facilitate interaction, create gathering places, build communities. What, then, is the appropriate design response to a health crisis that requires physically separating people?
Many observers are already saying that COVID-19 is changing society, not just in this nervous moment, but fundamentally. Beyond the immediate health and economic concerns, the profession will soon enough need to address the pandemic’s causes and long-term consequences, which are obviously inextricable from globalization, industrialization, and climate change. International travel, development of wilderness land, and a warming planet are all raising frequency of infectious disease outbreaks and rates of infection.
At times of crisis, great leaders hunt for opportunities. During the Great Recession, the powers that be did precisely the opposite, doubling down on systems that had failed and rebuilding them much the same as before, or worse. Flaws intact, we revived the automotive, real estate, and banking sectors. Now, the airlines are lining up for a handout, and other industries seem sure to follow. The government could use the crisis to implement reforms, but sadly I doubt it will. If we want change, we have to make it ourselves. The most effective design response to a plague—or financial downturn, or natural disaster—is to keep fighting for a more healthy, resilient, just society. Architects are good at it.
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