Finally, an architect who is making a lasting contribution to the fight against COVID-19. Yes, I know, many designers have been working diligently to make buildings safer and to produce pop-up healthcare facilities, and some have put in long hours and hard work volunteering to help those in need. And let’s not forget the heroic efforts some of our colleagues made to produce PPE when it was so desperately needed at the beginning of the pandemic. But here at last is one clear, replicable project that uses the core competencies and skills of the discipline in a way that only an architect could: the inoculation pavilions that Stefano Boeri has designed for rapid deployment in Italy. Yes, there have been other proposals for how to handle the process of testing and vaccine delivery, but none are as thoroughly and clearly designed as this round, translucent apparition.
Boeri came to this task with some advantages. First of all, as a former councilor for culture of the city of Milan and the scion of a distinguished political, manufacturing, and academic family, he had the political connections necessary to bring the project to life. Second, Boeri’s practice has long focused on breaking down the edges of buildings, both conceptually and in reality. A good example is his Bosco Verticale, a now-oft imitated group of high-rise apartment buildings in Milan. The project's balconies are large and deep enough that they can accommodate plant growth so luxurious that the foliage at times obscures the building—a significant contribution to the re-greening of the city. As a politician, a former editor of Domus magazine, and an advocate for a truly sustainable architecture, Boeri has blurred the boundaries of what it means to be an architect.
His new COVID facility, however, marks a return to the basics. It consists of a round pavilion, clad with textile stretched over a modular and lightweight timber frame so that it can be erected quickly and cheaply, with a minimum of foundations. The materials are all recyclable. Because the surfaces are translucent, the pavilion will have none of the heaviness and institutional feel of other such proposed solutions, such as recladding existing structures with aluminum panels or using shipping containers. The spaces will be luminous and relatively open, while still providing for privacy. Boeri aspires to make the experience as light and hopeful as possible. In reality, these tents may well overflow with way too much furniture, posters, ropes, and all the other accoutrements of public waiting space, but I have hope the lightness, the continual curves, and the warmth will shine through nevertheless.
Boeri's made another contribution: the building’s logo, a primrose. He points out that it is the first sign of spring—and thus of hope. It is a flower that does not have direct political connotations (an important consideration in Italy) but, whether consciously or not, the abstraction also brings to mind the blown-up image of the purple-red COVID-19 virus with its trumpeting protuberances. Boeri transformed that frightening image into something that is soft and positive in its connotations—a particularly apt graphic achievement.
All of which raises the question: Why have we not seen more successful efforts like this one by architects and designers? At most levels of government in this country, design is an afterthought. Why didn’t Mayor de Blasio or Governor Cuomo turn to Michael Beirut, David Rockwell, AIA, or SHOP to help in the fight against COVID-19 in New York? Design, after all, is about more than producing safe surfaces cheaply. It is about creating spaces, images, and forms that celebrate what is necessary and possible. I’ve spent some time in hospitals recently and had my COVID test in the usual drive-through line of idling cars spewing exhaust in a converted bank porte cochère. It's clear we must do better to help people stay safe while getting tested and inoculated.
I think it would a great thing for AIA, for instance, to organize a national effort, perhaps in collaboration with the AIGA and the Industrial Design Society of America, to create facilities similar to what Boeri has designed for Italy. Perhaps there could be a peer group that could come up with a way to select a specific design. Or the Institute and its allies could work with the design programs that still survive within the GSA and State Department to help choose the best team and solution. What a wonderful thing that would be, at the beginning of a new political era, for the national organizations that champion the value of design to make a concrete contribution to our health, safety, and lives.
Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.