Since the turn of the 21st century, the desire to do good has been one of the defining attributes of design culture. What young architect doesn’t want to create something—whether it’s a prefab shelter to be deployed in disaster areas, a tiny house for a homeless person, or a shipping container converted into a mini-hospital—that will make life better for someone?
That impulse has produced plenty of high-flying architectural activism, including the scores of houses, designed by the likes of Morphosis and David Adjaye, Hon. FAIA, for Brad Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation in post-Katrina New Orleans, or the nifty flat-pack houses Andres Duany, FAIA, designed to be shipped to Haiti after that island was devastated by an earthquake.
Such star-powered activism may be well intentioned and make for good copy and irresistible clickbait, but the best solutions—whether in response to some disaster or a long-standing social issue—are often less-overtly seductive. What was really needed post-Katrina wasn’t an architectural showcase (the houses are now the subject of a class-action lawsuit over shoddy construction), but a federally funded program to build a large quantity of simple homes to systematically replace the thousands that were lost. Similarly, Haiti didn’t need imported flat-pack houses so much as seismically upgraded versions of the island’s default concrete-block buildings, which residents could build themselves. After the 2010 earthquake there, I interviewed Elizabeth Hausler, an engineer who founded an organization, Build Change, dedicated to teaching rudimentary seismic strategies to local builders in earthquake-prone regions around the world—in essence, improving the local approach and vernacular. “This is why Build Change doesn’t win a lot of these cool, prestigious awards,” Hausler told me at the time. “What we do is very low-tech. It’s not very fancy. It’s not really anything new. It’s just improving an existing technology, but by doing that we reach so many more people with locally appropriate solutions.”
Surprisingly, one of the first places to celebrate this deeper, less sexy architectural response to cataclysm was the Museum of Modern Art. In a 2016 exhibition, Insecurities, MoMA looked at the world’s refugee crisis from a design perspective. The show placed limited emphasis on stand-alone solutions, the sort of beguiling designs that fare so well on Instagram. Instead, the curators devoted significant wall space to more systematic approaches like the “planning and design toolkit” that Ennead Architects partner Don Weinreich, FAIA, and his colleague Eliza Montgomery, AIA, devised for refugee communities. The idea was that the places where refugees lived—often for years—shouldn’t be thought of as “camps”; they should instead be regarded as cities, and designed with an appropriate level of thought and calculation.
A Potent Symbol of Architectural Activism
Today, the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed our own country to be as unprepared for disaster as the nations to which we customarily send aid. There is a shortage of essential supplies, the personal protective equipment—masks, gowns, and gloves—that we now familiarly refer to as PPE. Some of the paucity is because of the federal government’s shocking lack of foresight and logistical know-how, and some of it is because much of our manufacturing capacity has, over the last 40 or 50 years, moved steadily offshore. Cheap and disposable goods, like surgical masks, tend to be made in China.
In the unprecedented chaos of the moment, the symbol of architectural activism has quickly become the face shield. It’s a remarkably simple object, a clear visor held in place by a plastic harness that offers another layer of protection to medical personnel who already have their mouths and noses covered by surgical masks. It has little to do with architecture per se, but it can be easily fabricated with the tools of the trade.
You’ll still find shipping containers or prefab boxes smartly configured for the crisis circulating on social media, but the more powerful and significant response has been the harnessing and repurposing of the 3D printers and CNC cutting machines that have, over the past decades, become staples of architectural practice. As V. Mitch McEwen, an assistant professor at Princeton University’s School of Architecture, puts it: “We are fabricating what we can as quickly as we can.”
It’s a highly dispersed undertaking, but if there is a central hub, it might be the Cornell University lab presided over by Jenny Sabin, whose practice generally probes the border of architecture and material science. She is Cornell’s Wiesenberger professor in architecture and the director of graduate studies in the Department of Architecture.
When I spoke with Sabin in early April, she had been fabricating face shields for a little over a week. She explained how the idea quickly caught on: “Last Tuesday, I received an email from a colleague and collaborator in engineering here at Cornell, Kirstin Petersen. She had an urgent request from Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City. They were specifically requesting the shields. By the next morning, with the support of my dean and our staff, we were able to open up our main digital fabrication lab as well as my lab. By 10 a.m., we had all 10 of our printers in our main digi-fab lab, and the printers in my lab, running. Then I sent an email out to our faculty, staff, and students. Those that had printers started printing. And then we sent it out to some of our alumni architects in New York City, at KPF, Studio V, Gensler, Weiss/Manfredi … and they responded immediately and then they sent it out to their networks … and all of a sudden we had BIG and Grimshaw firing up their machines.”
The design of the mask, circulated in open-source files, comes from a Swedish company called 3DVerkstan. “Weill Cornell Medicine had tested some versions and approved this design,” Sabin said. “And this one is particularly good because it’s simple, it’s actually relatively comfortable, and it prints very quickly and efficiently.”
Within days, Sabin’s team was able to deliver the first batch of masks to the hospital, loading them on a university bus that normally transports students between Ithaca and New York City. The Cornell lab and a network of students, alumni, friends, and colleagues fabricated 1,000 face shields within the space of a week, more than satisfying Weill Cornell’s immediate needs; the leftovers have been donated to an organization called NYC Makes PPE, an ad hoc alliance of health care professionals and DIY manufacturers, including architects, that distributes shields, cotton masks, and other gear to hospitals, EMTs, and nursing homes.
Another fabrication hub has emerged on the West Coast, at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Alvin Huang, AIA, director of the graduate architecture program, teamed up with Darryl Hwang, an assistant professor of radiology and biomedical engineering, to develop and 3D print “pseudo N95 masks” and protective face shields, tested and approved by the university’s Keck Hospital. When I reached Huang, he’d enlisted 243 volunteers with access to 3D printers throughout Southern California. “In about two weeks, we’ve produced about 2,000 masks and 1,000 face shields,” he told me, “which we felt pretty good about—until we found out what the burn rate on the masks is and what the needs of the city are. Something like 15,000 masks a day. Which means we’re not even making a dent.”
Huang has started talks with the office of Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, trying to accelerate mask production. His proposal: the 1,000 schools that are part of the Los Angeles Unified School District should each be given four 3D printers to produce masks or whatever else is necessary, creating “a huge print farm of about 4,000 printers that would allow us to produce 26,000 masks a day.” Post-pandemic, those 4,000 machines could become be part of the schools’ STEM curriculum.
The current epidemic has made it alarmingly clear that our remaining manufacturers, because of fragmented supply chains, simply can’t produce the goods we desperately need. In their place, networks—both human and technological—have transformed a simple tool into a potentially scalable solution. The architectural profession, more than just supplying aspirational imagery or proposals for buildings that might be relevant, some day, is working together—more or less anonymously—as a loosely knit collective to produce a modest, lifesaving object. “One of the things that’s been, I think, just so powerful,” Sabin observes, “is the democratic and networked space that we’re working with. One 3D printer is not going to make an impact, but if you have hundreds of people within a cluster contributing, you can actually really make a difference in terms of delivering on a gap in the supply chain.”
Meet the informal network of architects who fabricated face shields
At Princeton, McEwen is operating a super-efficient CNC device to cut acetate for the 3DVerkstan face shield. “We can do that 20 times faster than most people, the shield part,” she says. She is starting to have trouble sourcing the big rolls of the material that are normally available from craft shops, but she remains committed: “I think it’s an architect’s responsibility to step in the same way that architects were stepping in after the 1918 flu epidemic when they became obsessed with light and air. We need to be obsessed with something else [now]. We need to be obsessed with materials and supply chains and access.”
In the Real World, I See Tents
Many of the other architectural responses to the pandemic have been even more subtle than the face shields. I recently interviewed the writers Geoff Manaugh and Nicola Twilley, who have been researching the architecture of disease-control for their forthcoming book, The Coming Quarantine. One of the consistent features of buildings and places that are designed to manage contagions is the emphasis on controlling air circulation so that it doesn’t transmit disease. In ancient lazarettos, air was directed “through the positioning of windows and arcades and entrances and exits,” Twilley told me. In more modern facilities, it’s about mechanically controlling air pressure.
Consider the Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. It was designed by Perkins and Will in response to the anthrax attacks following September 11, and the growing concern that there could be more mass casualty events in the future. According to a recent Washington Post article, it’s configured to “control airflow to entire sections of the structure to prevent cross-contamination.” In the emergency room, for example, each bed is enclosed within its “own set of thick glass doors to seal it off, with a negative-pressure air system to prevent infection from escaping into common areas.”
The hospital receives COVID-19 patients in an outdoor ambulance bay, a makeshift triage that features pandemic-specific tents manufactured by a company, FSI, that sells gear for firefighting and hazardous materials mitigation. Forget the shipping containers beautifully configured as triage centers or the clever prefab pop-up hospital rooms (two of the flashier responses to the pandemic); in the real world, I see tents.
If there has been a big aesthetic statement during the crisis, at least a design-related one, it’s the image of the Javits Center in New York after its conversion into an overflow hospital. The pristine line of white cubicles, each equipped with a hospital bed, a floor lamp, and a folding chair, looked like a conceptual art piece or some type of novel glamping facility. Javits, a generally unloved building, with its 760,000 square feet of exhibition space, appeared strangely beautiful. A Long Island City-based architecture firm, di Domenico + Partners, helped the Army Corps of Engineers with the design.
In London, a similar project, the conversion of the ExCeL exhibition center into the Nightingale NHS Hospital, which will have 4,000 beds when fully outfitted, was partly the work of BDP, a British architecture firm that had previously completed a study anticipating this kind of pandemic-related response. BDP’s template for turning expo centers into hospitals isn’t especially alluring—it looks like an IKEA instruction sheet filled with specialized details about how to handle things like “medical gases.” But the genius of the design is how it works with what’s already there: “The bed heads and service corridors have been constructed from a component system that is usually used to construct exhibition stands,” as the firm explained on its website. In other words, BDP is constructing hospital rooms with the kit of parts normally used to build trade-show booths. The end result—in particular the panels used to divide the space—look a lot like what’s on the floor at Javits.
BDP’s conversion of the ExCeL center (or the Army Corp’s transformation of Javits) may not, in Elizabeth Hausler’s words, “win a lot of these cool, prestigious awards,” but it’s precisely the kind of architectural thinking that’s necessary right now. I’d love to see firms come up with templates for other underused building types: arenas, hotels, condo towers filled with unsold apartments. The unflashy pragmatism that’s hard-wired into the architectural profession has begun to assume unexpected glamour.
As grim as things are right now, we’re getting a glimpse of society in general and architecture in particular that we don’t often see. It’s not the altruism that’s a revelation so much as the pragmatism, the willingness and ability to confront workaday problems. As Manaugh told me: “I think that that kind of creative emergency thinking reveals that we already are surrounded by many spatial solutions to many existing societal problems, they’re just not possible yet politically.”
The adaptive reuse of surplus buildings, whether they’re parking garages, exhibition halls, or condo towers, and their near-instant conversion, without a lot of flourish or fanfare, into things we need, could presage the future of architectural activism. It’s a future, McEwen argues, that should also be the focus of the profession’s leadership: “I’m seeing folks who have small emerging practices, really step up, using their equipment and their offices to get these face shields out. And I just want to see us take that energy and move it into things like housing and public housing. Because PPE is not the only shortage in the middle of this wealthiest country in the world.”