What is the future of our personal and public space?

by Jonathan Velardi

As humanity confronts the ever-changing landscapes brought on by COVID-19, Curate LA’s Editor, Jonathan Velardi asks us to think about how we’ll come together again, and what influence architecture will have in reshaping a new reality.

After 46 days, and counting, I consider myself an expert in my home-cum-office-cum-restaurant-cum-disco. I know my living space inside out: scrutinizing every ill-considered design choice that’s typical of a rental apartment, and adapting features to make my life in quarantine a little easier. If I didn’t think much of design x wellbeing before a global pandemic, I’m thinking of it now. As the weeks to stay-at-home multiply, awareness of functionality, flow, and quality of design heighten. Enforced remote culture may benefit the environment, but while we embrace the confines of our controlled surroundings, are we becoming more suspicious of public space? Curbside pickup is how we shop and consume, Zoom is how we’re staying in touch, and virtual viewing rooms are how we can access art. The ways we’ll navigate public space, housing, and support systems in order to slow the spread of an infectious disease remain in flux. If our relationship with domestic space has become more intimate, the expectations of what shared space should look and feel like demands equal investment. Education, employment and accessibility will need to adjust. The future of museums and cultural centers, with many reliant on footfall and charged admission, are under threat; predicted closures of smaller, non-profit operations are profound. COVID-19’s impact on life, as we know it, will be seismic. Is this an opportunity to radically rethink existing systems that could leave positive impressions on our personal and professional lives? Could the very criticism of Los Angeles’s isolating genetic, with its car culture compulsion and drive-thru convenience, be the model for a post-pandemic utopia? Our community is not shy of adaptability and experimentation: with little sign of easing this status quo, acceptance and innovation are of the essence.

I asked members from our creative community: how will architecture reshape the way we live and come together — what is the future of our personal and public space?

AgendA agencia de arquitectura, The Garden of Earthly Delights, 2019 at the MAK Center, West Hollywood.

Mimi Zeiger is an L.A.-based critic, editor, and curator. She was co-curator of the U.S. Pavilion for the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale and curator of Soft Schindler at the MAK Center for Art and Architecture earlier this year. Zeiger hopes for a more dynamic and flexible future, where the boundaries of urban life and nature interweave:

The critic and architect Michael Sorkin ((1948–2020) recently passed away from complications due to COVID-19, so I’ve been thinking about his work a lot, especially his fierce advocacy for the public realm as a place equitable to all people. Humans are social beings and we will flock together again. Architects and urban planners will draw on the lessons of how parks and open space are flexible enough to allow both congregation and social distancing. They’ll recognize that public engagement isn’t reliant on commercial activities and design spaces ready to accommodate multiple scales of art, culture, sport. As cities continue to grow, and they will, I would love to see greater interweaving of flora and fauna into urban life — a built environment co-mingled with local habitat suitable for coyotes, wild mushrooms, and Angelenos.

Richard Neutra, R. M. Schindler, Dionne Neutra, and Dion Neutra, at the Kings Road house they briefly shared, West Hollywood. From ‘Sun Seekers: The Cure of California’ by Lyra Kilston. Courtesy Atelier Éditions.

Wellness is nothing new to L.A. Its unorthodoxy predates stereotype of cleanses and chakras from the Sixties. The mountains of Europe, where health resorts, or sanatoriums, practiced natural healing in the face of tuberculosis during the 19th century influenced the alternative medicine movement we know today. Writer and editor Lyra Kilston charts the role of architecture as medicine in her book, Sun Seekers: The Cure of California published by Atelier Éditions. She explores the ideology that rippled its way from Switzerland to the West Coast — bringing with it Rudolph Schindler and Richard Neutra — and the unique opportunities that were being cultivated between gurus and architects. The Lovell House (1927–1929) by Neutra is a monument to the movement: a home built for health. The prototype in L.A.’s neighborhood of Los Feliz is one of the best examples of experimentation, innovation and connection with the Southern Californian climate. The house as medicine is relevant now more than ever during this pandemic. New housing developments across the city have arguably been casting shadows on Neutra and Schindler’s progressive legacy, but could now be the time to reintroduce some of their design values to promote good health?

Illness and epidemics have shaped everything from sewer systems to door handles, explains Kilston. A century ago, doctors often partnered with architects and city planners in the fight against tuberculosis, developing health-giving and germ-resistant sanatoriums, housing, schools, and neighborhoods. As dim, stuffy rooms gave way to spaces with larger windows and washable surfaces, a hygienic minimalism emerged. Access to sunshine, fresh air, and nature were considered vital to the healing process.

The terrace of Paimio sanatorium in Finland, designed by Alvar Aalto, completed in 1932 (L) and a door handle at Paimio sanatorium, designed to not catch the doctors’ sleeves (R). Courtesy Lyra Kilston.

I hope to see public health once again at the forefront of architecture and urban planning. Besides confronting sanitation and points of contagion, prioritizing health on an urban scale means increasing public green spaces (a city’s “lungs”), ensuring safer biking and walking, and designing sustainable buildings that contribute to cleaner air, energy, and water. These should not be seen as luxuries, but as crucial medicine for an ailing system.

Lovell Health House, Los Angeles, 1927–1929. Photo by Willard D. Morgan. © Barbara and Willard Morgan photographs and papers, Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA.

Los Angeles-based agency THIS X THAT represents some of today’s most progressive architects. Founded by Danielle Rago and Honora Shea in 2016, the agency endeavors to initiate, develop, and realize publicly accessible projects at the intersection of architecture, art, and culture. They posed the question to architects French 2D and Architensions.

Jenny and Anda French of French 2D. Photo by Steph Larsen.

French 2D works on residential, civic, and commercial projects with a focus on housing and mixed-use projects. Founded by sisters, Jenny and Anda French, the studio in Boston, Massachusetts, is interested in the hybrid models that exist between practice and academia.

Crises produce inflection points. They draw stark contrast between stasis and new realities, and bring to the fore outlier counterculture ideas, often already addressing how and why we lived the way we did ‘before.’ The shift to social distancing has in many ways highlighted the importance of our connections to each other and to the spaces that foster and allow for these connections. When asked about collective living in light of the pandemic, our clients for a 30-unit cohousing project currently under construction expressed zero doubt or anxiety. In fact, they wanted to be together more than ever, wishing to leave pies at each other’s doors, wave across a courtyard and video chat from either side of a unit wall. We believe collective models will align even more with our future need for resilience in our design of housing, civic, and community spaces.

Asynchronous Table (L) and Cozy Wall (R). Courtesy French 2D.

Architensions is an architectural design studio operating as an agency of research led by Alessandro Orsini and Nick Roseboro based in Brooklyn, New York and Rome, Italy. The studio works at the intersection of theory, practice, and academia, focusing on social behaviors and architecture to create new experiential scenarios.

Dwelling Without Corridors. Courtesy Architensions.

Architecture will address the needs of society in any crisis. We’re under the COVID-19 crisis now, and a global climate crisis. I feel like architecture will find ways to connect people. Density is something that is inevitable through humanity: understanding how we densify, we will find ways to understand public space and private space in a new way, observes Roseboro.

Writing Pavilion by Architensions. Photo by Cameron Blaylock.

With an outlook towards technology, Orsini predicts a new reality will affect housing and the way it’ll inform personal and public space:

The quest of architecture is always the one to find solutions in times of crises. The notion of public space and private space will be reshaped around the notion of the collective. One of the typology that will be innovated the most is probably housing technology — the collective idea of living and sharing will really push architecture towards the most innovation.

Sue Bell Yank, Deputy Director at 18th Street Arts Center.

Sue Bell Yank is Deputy Director at 18th Street Arts Center in Santa Monica. Her interest in urban planning and affordable cities propelled her to create a six-episode podcast about housing in L.A. called Paved Paradise. Told through the voices of residents, activists, artists, and city officials, the podcast examines historical events and cultural contexts that influence L.A.’s current climate: gentrification, skyrocketing home prices, community displacement, and tent cities formed under freeway overpasses across the city.

In highly populated cities, we’re witnessing transient spaces such as hotels offer up empty rooms to accommodate health-care workers so as to protect their family, direct community and society at large from getting infected with the coronavirus. Raising yet further questions about our existing models for housing, multi-dwellings and cohabitation, how will our civic landscape be designed to react to isolation and quarantine? Yank sees adaptable design as a long-term solution:

The way we come together in a post-pandemic world will reshape architecture. Architects have already been experimenting with modifiable modular structures that mix work, home, child care, and elder care on the same city block — in part to alleviate traffic and encourage density, but also to encourage hyperlocal support systems and community. We are going to need architecture that grows and changes with us over our lifetimes, which can expand community and contract it in times of extreme crisis.

NEST Toolkit with Plant Prefab. Courtesy Brooks & Scarpa.

Yank references the NEST LivingHome toolkit as an example of modifiable modular design. A collaborative project by Brooks & Scarpa and Plant Prefab, NEST offers cities and nonprofit developers a variety of building designs that use prefab parts, with the flexibility to include workplace, elder care facilities, school or childcare in a modular, changeable format that could be repurposed. Particularly pertinent during times of extreme crisis, a building can be completed in roughly half the time it would take with conventional construction methods.

On the day of publication, Los Angeles County has experienced lockdown for 46 days. Number of days remaining is unknown.

What do you think — will architecture reshape the way we live and come together? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment on @curate.la or contact our Editor at jonathan@curate.la.

Curate LA is Los Angeles’s most comprehensive art discovery platform. Our mission is to promote the economic and cultural development of L.A. by making its artistic ecosystem radically accessible to everyone. We deliver curated information on exhibitions, museums, programs, artist studios and galleries across the city and online. Connect with us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook + help us in our mission by becoming a supporting member here.

Curate LA is Los Angeles’s most comprehensive art discovery platform. www.curate.la

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store