I should be in China now. As is the case for many designers, critics, and teachers, my trips to write, recruit, and lecture there this spring have all been canceled. Next to go will be the forays to Europe: last week the Venice Biennale was postponed until August. Suddenly, we are—at least physically—isolated from our colleagues and other designers around the world. Fortunately, most of us are able to work remotely, only reinforcing a trend that is isolating the typing and clicking class, who have this freedom, from the working class.

Canceling a few trips or working remotely is, of course, an insignificant inconvenience given the threats posed by the outbreak of the virus, and the good news is that it will cut into my otherwise horrible carbon footprint. The response to the outbreak does, however, raise questions about the fragility of our increasingly aspatial world and the value of place.

More and more of us live, work, and play where we have to, rather than where we want to. We may have built the image of a society based on competitive capitalism and freedom of movement, but the outbreak of the virus has revealed how thin that freedom actually is. To the extent that our architecture reflects the global market and culture in its forms and functions, it also highlights how fragile the constructs are from which it arises. Most importantly, it reflects the class underpinnings of the love of place, form, and composition that we think of as central to its appreciation. The rich can afford varied and well-designed spaces anywhere; the poor must make due with whatever office, factory, housing block, or refugee camp they find themselves in.

For far too long architecture has ignored what happens on our phones, pads, computers, and other screens.

How should architecture react? An obvious answer—beyond helping to design pop-up medical facilities or spaces that limit the spread of germs—would be a reactionary one, which is to say, a Framptonian return to the local in everything from who designs and builds in a particular place to the materials and forms used there. That, again, only works for the affluent, because these days local materials are usually more expensive thanks to the effects of international competition. Another approach might be to figure out how to enrich individual experiences on isolated sites, much in the way of resort hotels and McMansions, but that would limit the essentially social nature of our existence—and, once again, cater to the rich. Finally, and most promisingly, architects might apply their approach in designing "meatspace" to the virtual world.

For far too long architecture has ignored what happens on our phones, pads, computers, and other screens. Sitting through meetings marked by the dullness of default-design conference rooms and ugly graphics makes it even more clear to me that architects need to bring their skills and knowledge to the virtual realm. I do not mean enhancing virtual worlds so that workers can operate robots remotely, although that could be one potential benefit. Rather, I mean figuring out how such representations can be extended or enhanced through digital means and projections. This is not just a question of aesthetics, but of creating a feeling of belonging, of feeling at home, of making sense of the virtual space that we occupy for so many hours every day. The digital world already has its own logic and function, as well as its own structure. It does not, however, have a character: a quality that can allow us to better frame our relationship between other humans and the world we all share. Its current character is default and mass-produced—the equivalent of your average fast food joint or social housing complex in the U.S. Name me one social space, website, or other virtual experience that even approaches the complexity and specificity of good architecture. We should not make do with these soulless places any more than we should accept them in the built world.

Ultimately, what we need is a not a retreat into isolation or a building of walls, but the creation of new windows and passageways. I was disappointed to see the Pritzker Prize again going to architects who throw massive amounts of concrete around to create dramatic effects that photograph well but do little more than show off a certain kind of spatial gymnastics. I was also dismayed to see the announcement of yet another massive new development in New York that will look like almost every other massive new development of recent memory. That kind of architecture just furthers a waste of materials to create isolated jewels of experience embedded in a global economy.

What painting and films can do, not to mention public architecture, is to open portals into other worlds. The difference here is that these windows are multi-dimensional and have become part of every aspect of our lives; they truly absorb us. We need to figure out their discipline, their logic, and their character. I do not believe that there is a fundamental difference between a world we inhabit online and one that we create with pen, pencil, and brush. We need to call on the skills of Pritzker Prize winners and corporate architects to connect fragments, real and otherwise, into a skein of experiences that is open to all.

Perhaps architects will spend some time, while they cannot travel to their sites or as they wait on materials, figuring out how they can use their skills to improve the work and living spaces of the less affluent and mobile. But I also hope they spend some time considering how to translate the sort of specialized, humane, tactile, and sensory experience we take for granted in the physical world into the online one, which is ever more central to how we live, work, and play.

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.

To receive our latest coverage of COVID-19 in your inbox, subscribe to ARCHITECT newsletters.