The implications of the coronavirus for architecture

The global lockdown caused by the coronavirus has brought the shortcomings and social inequality inherent in modern housing into stark relief. This presents architects with an opportunity to learn some important lessons for their future work. Valentin Bourdon, who is currently completing his thesis at EPFL on the collective aspects of housing, offers his thoughts on this issue.

The coronavirus crisis, like all other extreme and painful experiences, offers some important lessons. Valentin Bourdon, who studied at the École de Marne-la-Vallée in Paris, is in the last year of his PhD in architecture at EPFL. He considers it obvious that architects have much to learn from the current situation, in which more than one-third of the world’s population is forced to spend most of their time inside their homes. Of particular interest to Bourdon is the bearing that architecture and urban planning have on how and where social interactions take place in urban areas. In his thesis on architecture theory, he aims to provide architects with the tools they need to bring the concepts of community and shared living spaces into their work. These concerns have become essential as both lifestyles and environmental challenges evolve. We spoke with Bourdon, who offers interesting insights into the current crisis.

What does this crisis reveal about our relationship to living space? 
This lockdown took millions of people by surprise. It has made us all aware of the essential role of housing - and the inequalities that it reflects - in the urban framework. Because of this crisis, we are rediscovering what we own as well as what we forgo when we lose access to outside amenities such as parks, cafés and cultural and sporting facilities. These shared resources are so important to people who live in small spaces and close quarters with limited views. And owing to population density, city dwellers are more directly exposed to the risk of contamination than people who live, or have secondary residences, in more remote areas. From a practical standpoint, our restricted movement also shows that most modern housing is not designed for multiple uses. This becomes clear when work invades our domestic space, for example.

What lessons can architects draw from these unprecedented times?
The explosion in working from home may force architects to broaden the concept of living space. By living in confinement, we have learned that our homes should perhaps be more versatile. Of course, in view of the costs involved, making such a change is not just a question of architecture. That said, at a time of fast growth in working from home, co-working, the digital economy and new forms of local manufacturing and craftwork, architects have an opportunity to contribute to the conversation. Even the sharp rise in online shopping, which is being further fueled by the current crisis, points to the need to shift the focus back to our living space. That’s now where we shop, work, socialize, exercise and study; but there’s also an aspect of social responsibility, since it’s never been so easy to save lives by simply staying home. A fully multipurpose and versatile home also has its limits, however, such as how far we can go before losing our bearings. I think that having so many concomitant uses and their symbolic impact should lead architects to recognize the need to preserve certain distinctions and familiar features in the home. How can we enhance our homes without making them less hospitable? That may be the crux of the matter.

Have you seen any positive lessons emerge? 
I don’t think this crisis has created a new situation in terms of housing. What it’s doing is underscoring our fundamental needs and further accelerating a number of increasingly prevalent trends, such as working remotely, online shopping and online learning. I’m not sure whether abetting these trends is a truly positive consequence, but there’s no doubt that we’re living through a compressed and consequential period that will have deep implications for our living spaces. In these challenging times, being confined at home also reminds us of what cities are made of - collective sites and public spaces. Forgoing them makes us see their true value and want to take better care of them. What I also find striking is that, in their absence, we turn to our neighbors for social interaction. Our windows and balconies have become interfaces with other people and a vehicle of collective expression, as we share news with our neighbors and applaud our caregivers. Neighborly initiatives, such as running errands for the elderly in your building, are a part of this too. We are seeing a rise in cooperative actions close to home.

Should we nurture neighborliness?
We know that when it comes to sustainability, much can be done within the scope of apartment buildings. This can range from neighbors sharing certain resources - like solar panels - to sharing spaces - such as bike storage areas, party rooms, sports rooms, laundry rooms, gardens and terraces, and even craft workshops, reading rooms and guest rooms. This is what the new generation of cooperative housing is looking to do in Switzerland, where it is particularly active. So in my view, the current lockdown shows that we would do well to focus more on the quality of our living space and the importance of community. In so doing, we can help ensure that the physical aspects of our changing lifestyles will continue to strengthen the link between cities and living spaces - a link that we are now seeing as essential. 

Valentin Bourdon, "Les formes architecturales du commun" (provisional title), under the supervision of Luca Ortelli, EPFL, 2020.

Valentin Bourdon and Alessandro Porotto, « De l’Existenzminimum à l’existence commune », Actes de la Journée Bernardo Secchi du 24 September 2019, Fondation Braillard, August 2020.

Valentin Bourdon, "Does the Homogeneous City Belong to the Past’," Urban Planning, 30 September 2019.


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