Let's call it the Zoom Effect: the particular collapse of space that occurs in limbo. Distant people and places crowd a few feet from your face (What's in that bookcase? Is that a cat’s tail at the bottom of the screen?) and are yet so far away. Those building you love or wanted to visit are equally distant. By comparison, every object in your living room or home office seems so much clearer and even remarkable now. Mountain ranges or other outdoor wonders you had forgotten about fill the far view from your window.
I cannot predict how the pandemic will affect architecture, beyond obvious changes in its appearance and details. We’ll just have to wait to see how this fluid time unfolds. What I observe in mid-flux is a world made up of bits and pieces in space and time. The calendar and its grid of hours, days, and weeks revolves around the tiles of the Zoom call. Daylight hours stretch; I find it difficult to sleep at night. I notice everything in my immediate environment and wonder why I chose to put that chair there, why the designer gave it that exact curve. I look out the window and see nature revealed now that the smog has lessened.
I know I am not the only one. This push and pull of space/time is evident for all of us who are operators of symbolic logic (Robert Reich’s name for those of use our hands to type rather than make something tangible). We usually glide through our knowledge-based reality, increasingly made up of layers of virtual and real space that have a hurried continuity. From the assembly of the morning breakfast out of ingredients grown far away, through the speeding zoom of the car, to the flow of work and rounds of social engagements, those layers extend in pulses out to the region, the country, and the globe as we go through our day.
Now space contracts as we are confined to the grid of the Zoom meeting, which can take place, well, whenever, as long as you remember not to overlap. What disappears is the pause between, as well as the middle distance, the rhythm that makes sense of these experiences, as well as of any sense of continuity.
We watch videos of kangaroos loping through empty streets and bodies piled in morgues, we hear of deaths we cannot mark with funerals, and see buildings burn or rise without experiencing them. Like a dog who sees another animal on a screen but can’t smell it, we are not sure how to react. We used to think of such phenomena as surreal, or as dream-like. Now they invade our waking and working hours and spaces.
If we know anything—and much knowledge itself is now suspended—it is that Zoom Space will extend beyond this period of quarantinis that themselves alter our consciousness. We will keep space between us. Meetings will collapse or blur into each other because many will be online, with no need to drive or walk to get there. We will try not to touch surfaces or people. No hugging, not even of buildings or trees, lies in our future. We will have to sprint to catch up (increasing the smog again in the process) but can we? Will we remain in limbo, waiting for projects and ideas, or for the economy to start moving again?
Such knowledge is itself a blur. From our perch, unstable and uncertain, we can only see how all crises focus, accentuate, and accelerate what is already happening. Social distancing was already a thing, as income disparities skyrocket and pollution and rising seas threaten us. Zoom predates the crisis. We live in a post-globalist world, one of collage, where we cut and paste time and space in our buildings, in our experiences, and in our economic and social system. The glocal is not a continuum, but a fractured collapse of time and space tied together by a web, which we only truly see when the supplies and money it provide cease, or at least rupture.
We will live not only in a more glocal world, but one that will combine the appearance of fluidity with the collage of reality. Emptiness surrounds us, near and far. We reach through it with rituals and patterns. We will, as the Queen of England said, meet again, but not all of us, and not as often. Limbo Time and Zoom Space are with us to stay.
Rae Armantrout, in a poem titled "The Steps," recently published in the New York Review of Books, captures the sense of where we are—suspended, reaching out, and poised:
Was it better
such as distant wars
Now we pay attention
Take a step back,
and it’s like dancing.
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.