I love being an architect, and one real pleasure is when I’m with people enjoying ourselves in robust places: strangers dancing in city squares, young lovers looking at paintings in a museum, an excited audience nestled in an amphitheater absorbing live performances. Architecture provides the setting to host these memorable simple moments.
The phrase “social distancing” implies the absence of this togetherness, as though we had ceased to be social creatures. In this quarantined world, where isolation is prescribed, and separation from friends and family is seen as an act of love, can architecture maintain its relevance as a source of shelter and a catalyst of sociability?
That depends upon how we—the architectural community and society at large—choose to respond to the crisis through creative agency. The Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-1920 acted as an incubator for The Bauhaus, which emerged amidst the plague with new design paradigms and creative pedagogy. By advocating a new aesthetic for the modern world, they were also responding inventively to the pandemic. Architect Marcel Breuer designed tubular steel furniture and home surfaces that were easy to clean and use; Marianne Brandt, later head of the Bauhaus metal workshop, introduced clean-lined household objects from metal teapots to lamps. Their sleek modern designs—still popular today—were not just lifestyle choices but vital to survival.
A century later, right in the eye of another pandemic, could we respond with comparable creativity and care—a progression from 1920s sanitation to 2020s sanity?
This pandemic has made it necessary to reflect on architecture holistically, considering buildings as more than elegant shells or beautiful boxes, and looking instead to the lives lived within.
Architecture Is Not the Mere Construction of Boxes; It Lives in the Unboxing of Connections
This pandemic has made it necessary to reflect on architecture holistically, considering buildings as more than elegant shells or beautiful boxes, and looking instead to the lives lived within. Social media presents architecture as eye candy rather than the site of real experiences, and life under quarantine further disrupts architecture’s place as a host of social interaction—potentially with long-term consequences for how we live and form communities. All this has prompted me to consider anew the Japanese concept of “Ma.”
Ma 間: Both Time and Space, Both Distance and Relations
Traditional Japanese aesthetics regard space, as much as form, as the essence of art and architecture. Ma is the mysterious mother of many art expressions, an equivocal notion that translates as “space,” “duration,” “distance,” or “relation,” the term given to that elusive “in-between.”
Architecture is an art of Ma. It flourishes in both physical experiences and transient moments lived and remembered. The architect Toyo Ito once noted that his favorite architecture was people sitting on a mat under the shade of a tree during the cherry blossom season in Japan. The architecture here is the precise placement of the mat with the awareness of enjoying one’s experience, alone or together, with the tree, with the season, with the world.
“Distancing” is one aspect of Ma, while connecting is its equal alter ego. This crisis challenges us to find new ways to live with both simultaneously—here and there, alone and together.
Reframing ‘Social Distancing’ as ‘Physical Distancing and Social Engaging’
While most of us are quarantined at home, new realizations on “home,” “work,” and even “life” are ever-forming daily. As an architect, new ideas emerge through sketching, writing, and conversing, above all. Instead of a definitive conclusion, I propose a series of musings and questions, invitations to new thoughts and possibilities for positive change:
“Work” and “home” seemed to be counterbalances contending for our time and space. Could quarantine enable us to calibrate these two poles of our life, allowing for more holistic pursuit of our values?
Working from home, we smash old dichotomies—private versus public, physical versus digital—as we are in our kitchen conferencing the virtual boardroom, zooming while cocktailing. Could we learn how seamless and real that experience was and deploy it to create a hybrid “phy-gital” home?
After this, public assembly places will require a renewed sense of safety and security. Could architects be the catalyst to integrate social, technological, behavioral, and other critical disciplines to reprogram and redefine publicness and its physical manifestation?
The Bauhaus designers incorporated sanitation with the aesthetic of modernity through technology and materials. If sanitation was vital in making avant-garde modern design desirable to mass society, what social agenda would emerge after this pandemic, and how would we integrate these in the new creative paradigm?
We realize that the invisible could gravely harm the visible if the system was off-balanced. Could architects recalibrate our roles, not as inventors of excitable forms, but more as embracive conductors of orchestrated socioeconomic, human, and artistic values proposing solutions to rehabilitate a renewed world? Could we also expand our responsibilities to social programming and engagement, influencing new policies and legislation for a more empathetic design process?
Society tends to prefer the spectacular over the familiar, and the quarantine plunged us into the deep familiarity of ourselves. Will we emerge from it with a novel set of priorities? The invisible sensibilities over visible sensations, the atmospheric “Ma” over the iconic “Mass”?