When we were faced with the first wave of COVID-19 (ah, we were so young and innocent), I joined countless other critics and self-proclaimed seers in speculating what changes the pandemic would bring to the world of architecture. and design. Now that we may be over the last wave and learning to live with the rampant threat (I’ll never be able to look at the cute deer in my backyard the same way, or at least without wearing a mask), it’s worth the difficult to verify what remains of these predictions.
In a September 2020 column, I predicted an intensification “of the many waves of standardized organizational forms, materials, and forms that have been created both by global flows of finance and culture, and by similarities in production methods and standards, as they have been by the aesthetic preferences of all architects. I then suggested that the pandemic would only increase our aversion to difference and risk-taking in form manufacturing, while also increasing our reliance on standardized components and manufacturing methods.
Singapore. This island-state-city has perfected both the integration of security and control devices (a sensor in your car not only tracks you and charges you for being on the road, but also notes your presence in a parking lot), but also the generic look and feel of each structure, whether it is an office building, a government structure or a greenhouse arboretum.
I stand by this prediction, especially since in the meantime we have seen the rise of other factors that promote these tendencies towards uniformity: the Chinese government’s campaign against “weird” architecture; the need for offices that are more “touchdown” spaces than day-to-day environments; and the rise of contactless forms of security and access. Not only the virus, but the physical distance of remote work and contactless access will create and streamlining will become rampant.
On the other hand, the pandemic has also led people to flee to home-made interiors and more remote locations. DIY is a great thing, but it rarely involves architects. On the other hand, many designers now have a lot of work creating structures for those who realized they could be anywhere and still be part of a global economy. The rise of peri-urban communities, already evident many years before 2020, has taken off. Whether this brings a true appreciation of the local landscape, both natural and man-made, or whether it’s just inserting Starbucks and video conferencing rooms into every Tennessee holler and the Rocky Mountain log cabins.
The same goes for the spatial and architectural inventions of the past two years, like the semi-enclosed food stalls that have proliferated along sidewalks. Right now they’re lovely and glued together, but I wonder if the only way they’ll survive is by sticking to codes yet to be developed (beyond the rather lax current codes) and being value-embedded in the same kind of sameness that dominates the restaurant. design now.
What I can say is that the New International Style I referred to is even more specific than I thought. His favorite building material, as I noted in a blog a few weeks ago, is metal panels for offices and public buildings, some form of faux stucco over Tyvek for residential buildings (which he s whether it’s single-family homes or type 3 monstrosities, and composable concrete panels for just about everything else. The similarity we already knew in our suburban developments and those storage units for wannabe yuppies and defeated wage earners, Type 3 buildings filling the “doughnut” around every downtown in the United States, has now hit the office market, where it turns that smooth, curved and shiny is the only way to build.
What is also evident is the distance we build between ourselves and our buildings. During a recent trip to New York after several years of absence, I noticed that to use the subway, I did not even need to swipe my card in an amount, even less to insert a token: it I just had to pass my phone over a sensor. The same is true in museums, hotels and office buildings; you also often have to show your vaccination card to enter the building, creating what is supposed to be an invisible cocoon of RNA-based security in the spaces.
Much of this is familiar to me from my experiences in one particular place: Singapore. This island-state-city has perfected both the integration of security and control devices (a sensor in your car not only tracks you and charges you for being on the road, but also notes your presence in a parking lot), but also the generic look and feel of each structure, whether it is an office building, a government structure or a greenhouse arboretum. Public buildings are big drops, while on private structures, as I noted in my discussion of structures for the new La Guardia terminal or is evident in many new streamlined skyscrapers, only the edges are rounded.
Perhaps we should hope for a New Postmodernism on the horizon beyond the Modernism of the New International Style.
The physical appearance of what human beings have done in Singapore has to do with the climate, which is mild enough to make you feel like there are few distinctions between indoors and outdoors, while the fact that you’re on an island that’s a city, suburb, exurb, and international hub all rolled into one, and mixed with vegetation, the two offer an idealized version of sprawl and all the more sense of living in a controlled state, both Eden and Brave New World. It has also led Singapore to be a leader in ‘green’ buildings of a certain type, where the difference between landscape and structure, between interior and exterior, dissolves.
Where this pleasing similarity breaks down is in the large housing estates and barracks where foreign workers are housed. These have a very different and more old-fashioned materiality of bricks, concrete and tiles, and a crowded layout, and have become hotbeds of COVID infection. There are limits to the ability of any capitalist state to control reality.
Still, I think our future is to be like Singapore, even with the weather of Buffalo or Miami; we’ll find ways to improve the heat lamps and air coolers that the pandemic has helped diffuse far beyond their uses in a few high-end bars with terraces. If we have enough money, we will never touch a surface and glide effortlessly through our lives, moving from one similar building and interior to another. Our buildings will be designed by BIG and Thomas Heatherwick, interpreted by the alphabet soup of big business: sleek, slender and global in their aesthetics.
What will counteract these trends, which have already been so strong over the past decade and which have only intensified? A counterforce may be the realization that we cannot continue to use resources that we cannot replenish and therefore cannot build new structures, and must instead reuse old ones, including all of their original properties and different materials and spaces. Another could be the rise of crafts and DIY, although I’m not sure I prefer an Etsy style over a new international style.
This new international style of smooth, non-contact gliding and gliding, and the openness and ease it brings, is of course not so bad. There is a generic good taste in these buildings, but also an openness and lack of hierarchy in many interiors, and a logic and security that we can welcome. Good design, which I still hope to find, will be the ability to use these generic rules and components and find a way to make them non-conforming to what you expect, specific to place, time and people, and open to different interpretations and uses. Perhaps we should hope for a New Postmodernism on the horizon beyond the Modernism of the New International Style.
The opinions and conclusions of this author are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine or the American Institute of Architects.