The Ear Chair
Jurgen Bey/Studio Makkink The Ear Chair

If I had a crystal ball, I would predict crystal balls—or at least cocoons. That is to say: if there are any likely outcomes from the current COVID-19 crisis (beyond the proliferation of washing stations and embedded temperature monitors and more touchless controls), they might include ways in which architecture will appear and work. These include streamlining, cocooning, and distancing—practices that already were an ever-increasing part of architecture practice around the world, and that have become even more widely applied thanks to the demands the pandemic has put on human society. A catastrophe such as the one we are currently experiencing does not necessarily create new conditions, but intensifies and brings out inherent ones, and that is the case now. I will leave deeper structural changes to other experts, such as the ones Oliver Wainwright interviewed recently. The question I will restrict myself to here is: What will architecture look like or what will its shape be?

Streamlining is a term that dates back to the crash of 1929, which reached heights the current one is fast approaching. It was popularized by the industrial designer Raymond Loewy, who believed that the smoothing of edges and aerodynamic shaping of objects, and in particular vehicles, would ease American’s resistance to buying new objects while increasing their efficiency. The notion later extended into the fields of ergonomics and “human factors,” which promised to remove any barrier to use in terms of fit or adaptability to the body. Streamlining is a look, of course, but in certain cases it can achieve a functional purpose, as with the design of airplanes and cars.

To a certain extent, “smoothlining,” as it is also sometimes called, can impede the ability of dirt, bacteria, and viruses to gather on surfaces. This is also a design principle with a long history, reaching back, for instance, to Frank Lloyd Wright’s streamlining of both building and furniture elements at the Larkin Building (the headquarters for a Buffalo soap manufacturer) and Alvar Aalto’s innovations at the Paimio Sanitorium. We can now assume that such efforts will extend beyond the smoothing of surfaces to the elimination of direct human touch, so that, just as cars now can unlock and start without us touching (almost) anything, elevators will arrive with the wave of a hand and surfaces will unfurl, newly sanitized, like the covers of some toilet seats. Surfaces themselves will be designed without texture so as to prevent anything untoward from adhering to them.

Already we are seeing many architects using their expertise and equipment to create shields and bubbles we can wear. How long will it be before we see a revival of Michael Webb’s “suitaloon,” a 1967 hybrid between a building and a suit?

Streamlining was already a thing in architecture, of course, with its ups and downs between Art Deco and High Tech, and had another moment in the 1990s—started, at least in part, by the adaptation of computer and communication technologies. Architects such as Greg Lynn—who developed the theory of blobs—and Lars Spuybroek believed that such smooth forms came out of the inherent logic not only of computing, but also of materials themselves. Zaha Hadid, meanwhile, hoped that computers could streamline away barriers between inside and outside, thus making for what she thought would be a more democratic landscape. This New Blobism has now slithered into popular consciousness through the design of large office buildings and shopping malls, as well as airports and train stations, most of them for now in Asia. Perhaps because of its adoption by corporate clients, young and avant garde architects seemed to be losing interest in these whiplashes, bullnoses, and convoluted curves, but that trend may now reverse itself or find some new, hybrid expression.

The Suitaloon

These shapes will accommodate the second trend we may see, which is the increase in cocooning, not only as a phenomenon, but also as a form. Already we are seeing many architects using their expertise and equipment to create shields and bubbles we can wear. How long will it be before we see a revival of Michael Webb’s “suitaloon,” a 1967 hybrid between a building and a suit? More to the point, we might witness the proliferation of forms that allow for social distance and create shelters within public spaces and office environments. Already designers have developed hybrids between furniture and interiors that give office workers some sense of privacy and comfort in open office environments. These “nests,” as Yves Behar’s office line is called, may now make their way into public spaces like airports. The one-percenters can already avail themselves of their exclusive lounges, and perhaps there will be a trickle-down effect.

Such cocoons, which the philosopher Peter Sloterdijk saw as inherent in modern culture in his book on the topic more than 20 years ago, would bring blobism and streamlining to the smaller scale of the individual space. They will also increase the reliance on biomimicry that is becoming ever more popular in the experimental reaches of architecture. If people are going to come into offices, they are going to want protective and distraction-attenuating cocoons, and will ask for them in waiting rooms and other semi-public spaces. The rich, of course, will be able to afford them first. The model, as in many architectural developments over the last century, will be cars, whose interiors are designed as efficient and comfortable bubbles, and airplanes, whose premium seats offer the same comforts. The mechanism will be the control of the environment—again an inherent part of our urban growth over the last century—that will isolate us not only from other human beings, but also from the natural world. At the same time we’ll see the increased penetration of devices and software that measure and track our movements, our temperature, and more, all in a “smart” manner. It would be good remember Rem Koolhaas, Hon. FAIA’s observation about shopping malls: “all conditioned space is conditional.”

Accommodating such cocoons and creating virtual streamlining through spatial controls will also intensify the desire for space. Space has already become our ultimate luxury, the interiors of some of our homes ballooning with endless rooms with vague functions (kitchens too large to eat in, bathrooms masquerading as dens, living rooms proliferating into family rooms, entertainment rooms, and halls), feeding the empty stretches of suburban sprawl. In the city, we’ve witnessed the threading of public spaces and parks along the leftover stretches of railroad tracks and ports facilities. Again, it is usually the rich who get the space, relegating the rest of the population into ever more crowded “open” offices, buses, and trains, tenements and slums, and emergency rooms.

Removing ourselves from dirty and dangerous reality, whether in modern versions of the “piano nobile” (the elevated “first” floor lifted up above the filth of the Renaissance street and transformed by Le Corbusier into the “free plan” floating on “pilotis” or columns), or in the expansive lawns, premium seats, private rooms, and other separation-creating elements that are the embodiment of fear and privilege, will only extend their emptiness. The movement towards streamlining, cocooning, and spatial distancing will also further increase our reliance on technology, and particular on conditioned, artificially lit, and controlled spaces, increase social and economic distinctions, and remove any sense of materiality, the presence and endurance of memory or history in space, or idiosyncrasy and chance in buildings.

Ben van Berkel/UN Studio's Raffles City project in China
Seth Powers Ben van Berkel/UN Studio's Raffles City project in China

Is there any good news? I hope the waning of this pandemic will lead to outburst of a desire to be together again, and we will see an upsurge in the use of public spaces and a return to intimacy both with each other and with the human-made and natural environment. We might also see a break in the tendency to value engineer everything down to the limit, as we rediscover the value of redundancy, including multiple levels and scales of space itself. We need to have extra hospital beds, even if they don’t pay for themselves, but we also need enough space to distance or cocoon ourselves in the case of emergencies. Finally, the manner in which this virus spreads, remaining on certain surfaces and not others, swirling through the air and, at a larger level, separating us from each on both a personal and global level will, if nothing else, cause us to think more about space and its design.

Laser-cut face shield and 3D printed visor fabricated by Cornell AAP
Courtesy Kurt Brosnan and Tyler Williams for Cornell Architecture, Art, and Planning Laser-cut face shield and 3D printed visor fabricated by Cornell AAP

As always, if architecture wants to have a role in our post-COVID future, it will have to not just solve the immediate problems but help us design places that create a more equitable world, where space and safety are not just the privilege of the rich. It will need to help us be more resource-efficient, maintaining the ongoing drop in extractive energy use and preserving the clean air that is the silver lining of this pandemic. And it should help us find in space and construction a beauty that affirms our humanity.

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.