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Pandemic Paradoxes: World-Making at its Crossroads

by Pedro Gadanho

Along a few months around the start of the 2020s, the sudden Covid19 pandemic induced a startling paradox effect. It slowed down our everyday life to an almost numbing stop, and yet, simultaneously, it accelerated a globalized human society into an unexpected future.

Who would have believed that, within days, thousands of planes would be grounded and the unstoppable march of globalization and economic growth would be brought to an abrupt halt? Who would have ever imagined that, within weeks, governments around the world would be ready to deactivate an economic system that was apparently invincible? Who would have believed that, in the name of saving human lives or just plainly averting the scandalous exposure of broken-down public health systems, political elites were actually ready to hastily, if temporarily, sacrifice capitalism?

Simultaneously, however, while we were still locked down in our domiciles, an invisible and anxious acceleration made it seem like, suddenly, everything had to change, both nature and form. Within days and weeks, while we were frozen in place, the design world responded with countless, often foolish proposals to alter cityscapes, building typologies, everyday objects, 3D printing protocols. From one day to the other, while masks became an instant fashion item, social distance was a new metrics by which to conceptualize space. From one day to another, anything, from street markets to airplane seats, was clumsily but sophisticatedly revised. Every tech-savvy design and architecture studio distributed open-source plans for easy-to-assemble, home-printed protection gear. But if this acceleration was reactive and hysterical, another subtler mode of acceleration disclosed deeper historical dilemmas.

As in a moment of convergence of different tensions, and even if in the middle of a stop-motion suspension, we were all swiftly moved forward to a future we were somehow trying to postpone. We were crushingly confronted with a move we had already theoretically discerned, but not yet entirely conceived and absorbed: as the economy slowed down, we were suddenly thrown into the potential alternate reality of a climate crisis-driven “great transition.”

As Bruno Latour and others readily asked, was the corona virus emergency a global, hurried dress rehearsal for the more massive, but slower-moving emergency of environmental catastrophe? (1)

Like in a dream, or a nightmare, it was as if we all at once experienced the diverse, contrasting speeds that an emergency can paradoxically contain. While apparently living in slow motion and a state of suspension, we in fact experienced a condensed and one-themed version of how a global ecological emergency could unfurl — along strenuous decades and in many painful fronts.

We got the rare opportunity to anticipate, in a quick-motion glimpse, the effects that a snail-like breakdown can actually bring upon us. Indeed, we received the gift of having the invisibility of “slow violence” (2) speeded up to the point of making it astoundingly noticeable. Filled emergency rooms, mass burials, food price surges, ramping inequality, racing racial tensions, instant epic unemployment, doomsday economic depression, the resurgence of political autocracy were all speeded-up, signaling how such things can flourish under any sort of major ecological disruption.

Further, the unique clarity of this moment came with an added feature: this time, catastrophe was not a far, localized disaster that you distractedly watched on a screen from the comfort of one’s everyday routines. This time, the emergency was not something you could dismiss as affecting only distant others. It was right at your doorstep, it took your dearest ones, it paralyzed your community. And it hit everybody, everywhere around the globe.

Dress rehearsal or not, when we are gifted with such an unexpected sight into a bleak future —the impalpable future of relentless climate-driven emergencies— it is important that we are able to retain its lessons. It is imperative that we reflect on its insights. It is essential that we immediately act on its ramifications. Before we fall prey to the most human tendency to “return to normal” —and quickly let the traumatic episode slip into oblivion— we really must ask what kind of “new normal” we now want to design and implement.

When we are gifted with such an unexpected sight into a bleak future —the impalpable future of relentless climate-driven emergencies— it is important that we are able to retain its lessons

Obviously, the urgency of this historical moment does not revolve around quick fixes to restaurant layouts, nor the next wave of shipping containers redesigns. The priority lies at a much larger scale. It lies in the conception of how the “recovery” from this global emergency will incorporate a much-needed transformation of our life styles, our main economical drives, the way we fuel and feed our cities. The most pressing concerns should be directed at how we take this chance to embrace a roadmap that, although already laid ahead, had not yet got the public traction it requires.

Recently, the scientific community had already reached the consensus that, in face of the only apparently-invisible environmental emergency, “business as usual” would not be sustainable for much longer. But consensus on the ensuing political action was much harder to attain. Reform and structural change at the required magnitudes are hard for national leaders, who rely on winning elections every four years. International agreements on critical climate action were reached, but hardly implemented. Even so, just before the pandemic hit, proposals of transformative Green New Deals were already on the table, opening a way for the inevitable decarbonization of our economies and the so-called “great transition” onto more resilient, equitable societies.

Now, on the aftermath of the corona virus pandemic, billions and trillions will be injected into economies so as to trigger a “recovery” from the biggest economic crisis since the Great Depression. These funds can certainly be deployed to get us back to an environmentally destructive “business as usual.” Or, as recently pledged in the European Union, they can alternatively put us on track to effectively implement those Green New Deals that were already under discussion.

As part of its paradoxes, the pandemic has also pushed us to this crucial crossroads. And this is a crossroads that has immense implications for the built environment and the future of architecture practice. It was not per chance that recent proposals of Green New Deals were enthusiastically endorsed by many architects.

The first ideas for an environment-friendly reenactment of Roosevelt’s New Deal, the historical program of massive public investment tackling the effects of the 1929 depression, appeared shortly after the 2008 recession. At that time, only a few architects took notice, and even less of those acted on the plan’s perceived potential for the transformation of building practices. Yet, in 2019, such plans reemerged in the United States as a much-publicized legislation package led by a new breed of Democrat representatives (3). This time, architects did pay attention. The architecture community did understand the potential of such measures, especially for a profession that was faced with budding hints of being an accomplice in ecocide and environmental destruction.

As I describe in a forthcoming book on the impacts of the ecological emergency on architecture practice, support for the proposed measures was immediate. Architectural media, professional associations, individual practices and even emerging politically-inclined lobbies were fast to endorse the plan, and appreciate its repercussions for the field. The Green New Deal was clearly seen as an opportunity to boost the profession, both in economical and moral terms.

In between plenty of stimuli for green innovation or affordable housing, the resolution implied trillions of dollars for “building resiliency against climate change-related disasters,” “repairing and upgrading the infrastructure,” and, most appealingly, “upgrading all existing buildings in the United States and building new buildings to achieve maximum energy efficiency, water efficiency, safety, affordability, comfort, and durability.” (3)

With its massive turn to cleaner forms of energy, a Green New Deal would mean an infrastructural overhaul at a scale seldom seen in the history of modern nations. As I put it in the Climax Change project, such measures simultaneously addressing the climate crisis and growing economic inequality were simply too mouth-watering to be overlooked by architects. If nothing else, this would provide the galvanizing incentive —or the irrefutable financial input— to finally shift the way the profession has typically responded to environmental concerns.

With its massive turn to cleaner forms of energy, a Green New Deal would mean an infrastructural overhaul at a scale seldom seen in the history of modern nations

Now, it is important to note that the decarbonization goals of today’s Green New Deals still involve some magical thinking, especially regarding the technological capacity to eliminate carbon dioxide emissions by 2030 or 2050. It is not yet sure that, despite good intentions and the revelatory impulse of the pandemic, there will be the political momentum to move such plans ahead. Yet, if those schemes do get going, they would provide the surest motivation to revolutionize the architecture profession beyond its current credo on the illusions of sustainability by certificate.

The fact is, before architects can reap the benefits and stimuli of any Green New Deal, political action is still required at the level of the most elementary forms of democracy. Alternative ways of world-making are now at stake. At the dawn of two contrasting possible futures, architects —as any other social actors— can only make sure they express their loud enthusiasm for the right choice. They can do it by educating their public and private clients. They can do it by pushing their innovative ideas to the wider public sphere. They can do it by redirecting their work to meaningful civic participation. They can do it by effectively starting to change their design practices.

Alternative ways of world-making are now at stake. Architects —as any other social actors— can only make sure they express their loud enthusiasm for the right choice

Despite all the death and pain it caused, the pandemic would turn into a paradoxical opportunity if only it would allow for a speedier reconception of what “the new normal” could look like —be it in terms of social inequality, racial disparities, resource extraction, a poisonous built environment or all the ongoing ecological disruptions. If it would prompt us to make the right choice, rather than a horrible malediction the pandemic would have been more of a blessing in disguise.

(1)

See: Bruno Latour, “Is This a Dress Rehearsal?,” 26 March 2020. Critical Inquiry. Accessed 10 June 2020, https://critinq.wordpress.com/2020/03/26/is-this-a-dress-rehearsal/

(2)

See: Rob Nixon, Slow Violence and The Environmentalism of the Poor (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011)

(3)

See: 116th Congress “H.RES.109 – Recognizing the duty of the Federal Government to create a Green New Deal.” 7 Feb 2019. congress.gov, Accessed 19 May 2020, https://www.congress.gov/bill/116thcongress/house-resolution/109/text

Posted
02.Jul.2020 351 views
Author
TRANSFER NEXT pedro Gadanho Pedro Gadanho

Pedro Gadanho is an architect, curator, and writer. He is currently a Loeb Fellow at Harvard University. Previously, he was a curator of contemporary architecture at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, where he coordinated the Young Architects Program, and curated exhibitions such as 9+1 Ways of Being Political, Uneven Growth, and A Japanese Constellation. Between 2015 and 2019, he was the founding Director of MAAT, the Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology, in Lisbon, where he initiated more than 50 exhibition projects, curating new commissions by artists such as Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, Carlos Garaicoa, Tomás Saraceno or Jesper Just, as well as major interdisciplinary shows and publications including Utopia / Dystopia, Tension & Conflict, and Eco-Visionaries. He has edited the BEYOND bookazine, the ShrapnelContemporary blog, and contributes regularly to international publications. Gadanho holds an MA in art and architecture, and is a PhD in architecture and mass media. He wrote Arquitetura em Público, a recipient of the FAD Prize for Thought and Criticism in 2012.

The stopped present could be a good place from which to look at the near past and, most of all, the future.

TRANSFER NEXT aims to invite shared reflections on the new scene that coronavirus will probably usher in.

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