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Global Architecture Platform

World, Interrupted

by Alejandra Celedón

The pandemic can overthrow many of the paradigms by which we think cities. In an optimistic hypothesis, it can trigger deep changes that were long overdue. If the economic system was already in crisis, the virus would only accelerate and make visible its ruins. The crisis involves the scope of labor, but also that of education, leisure, commerce, and housing itself. In a less idealistic scenario, cities could become obsolete or vacant places – like the sudden ghost-towns of the past few weeks –, which would demand deeper reassessments: from rethinking densities to reformatting the very pieces (or types of buildings) that make up our cities. Office towers, housing blocks, and shopping malls as we know them, would become obsolete typologies. Rather, the notion of integrated city projects, thought of as mixed urban fragments, might return from the past. Crises, by definition, force us to make radical decisions between blatant alternatives (“right or wrong, life or death” in Koselleck’s words (1)). They also raise the possibility that certain pent-up debates will finally take place; after all, crisis and critique share the same etymological roots. But regardless of the question about the future, the question about the present, the here and now, is already a foundational one.

The only certainty we have is that the future is uncertain, therefore the path to what comes next is cobbled with conditionals. The present, on the other hand, is already complex and harsh enough to unravel. Today our domestic spaces have absorbed dimensions that are usually sustained in the city ensuring its economic vitality: teleworking, tele-education, online leisure and entertainment, e-commerce, which on the one hand make the conditions of many people even more precarious, and on the other, could reduce the demands for square meters of offices, cinemas, theaters, and schools that cities provide. These phenomena are not new but endemic to the digital age; radicalized, amplified, and accelerated with the pandemic. If the future indicates that more viruses like Covid will come, we will have to radically question whether the domestic space can and should contain all those other functions, and if that can continue to be called a city. If the capitalist separation of work and home had already alienated subjects between their personal and productive lives, telework may prove the final invasion of the last stronghold of our privacy, if it is not accompanied by new ways of conceiving labor. Without a doubt, the virus has made visible that it is imperative to guarantee and improve the minimum living standards of housing in our cities. Zoom, Hang-out, Canvas – and our camera-ridden devices, are surveilling our daily routines, exposing what used to remain hidden in our public existence.

Without a doubt, the virus has made visible that it is imperative to guarantee and improve the minimum living standards of housing in our cities

The isolation, distancing, and lack of physical contact that the pandemic has forced upon us, goes against what a city essentially is and ensures. For the same reason, the highest concentration of infected people is found in them, as the expansion rings reverberate towards rural areas. Capitals cities exhibit what Covid-19 rejects: the density of being together, precisely by attacking the centers of economic power. Cartographies of various kinds proliferate in recent weeks, showing what’s inevitable. If John Snow managed to map the deadly cholera outbreak of London in the 19th century, today with all the available technology, it seems problematic to envision strategies that allow defining perimeters (just as Snow’s famous map did), without stepping on boundaries of freedom and individual privacy that the city should also protect. Apps that provide deaths-tolls around the globe in real time or trace the movement of those infected in the style of the Netflix series “Black Mirror”, embrace a version of ‘Smart City’ where we could all be monitored through our cell phones in every movement at any hour. A dystopia that we surely don’t want to come to either.

The power of urban concentration has become the virus’ most destructive weapon and the center of discussions on post-Covid cities. Just as the convenience of city life is under question, so will be its financial need. Between remote working, tele-education, and the collapse of face-to-face commerce, the challenge for cities will be to maintain their vitality, and in this resistance, the open, wide and green spaces will be those that – despite the distance they might demand between people – will continue to connect us with nature, with the landscape, and with others.

Just as cities pose the greatest risk, they are also paradoxically the safest places, where resources and medical care have the capacity to respond and save lives. More equitable cities, with public spaces, public parks, and more open-air locations, will be able to respond better and choreograph distances between bodies with more flexibility, as the health situation gradually allows for. Although thinking of a city for social distancing is an oxymoron, for the moment it seems to be the watchword. Both buildings and urban spaces must conform to the measures, meters and dictates of the virus. Gradually, trust will have to be restored in the presence of the other not as a threat. Despite the fact that these past weeks our cities seem like ghost towns out of a science fiction film, the public and collective spaces (canceled during the lockdown) will prove not only to be social equalizers, but also culturally and environmentally fundamental. Historical debts will have to be faced, such as the thousands of people living on the streets or the long stretches of the city made up of minimal housing without the essential infrastructure and collective spaces to face this and any new pandemics. This virus, once again, will discriminate between neighborhoods according to its capacity to admit such distances and isolations.

The public and collective spaces will prove not only to be social equalizers, but also culturally and environmentally fundamental

This is not the first nor will it be the last pandemic, since the world is already globalized. And although it is perhaps the first that will be remembered at this scale, all the previous great plagues, wars, and catastrophes have not overthrown the city as a material and organizational form. This will be no different. It is crucial to take this opportunity to rethink how we really want and should live, culturally, environmentally, and socio-economically. In a world where commercial and air borders are already part of an economic system that spans the whole globe, airports and customs will be the first resistance, not only to this virus but to the arrival of others. At a time when borders could become more flexible, the world will strengthen its walls, a phenomenon to which we must remain vigilant amid outbreaks of fascism and nationalism. On the other hand, once we come to term with the idea that there are several rights that must be met publicly, we will be better prepared to address an urban future and respond to uncertainty, wherein individualism, pride, disinformation, and fear have always been the worst enemies.

(1)

Koselleck, Reinhart (2006), “Crisis”, in Journal of the History of Ideas, 67(2)

Posted
11.Jun.2020 630 views
Author
Alejandra Celedon Alejandra Celedón

Alejandra Celedón (Edmonton, 1979) is an architect from the University of Chile (2003), Master in Science in Advanced Architectural Studies from the University College London (2007) and Doctor in History and Theory of Architecture from the Architectural Association (2014). Since 2016, she teaches and conducts research at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile on geopolitical, territorial and architectural strategies undertaken during the 1980s in Santiago with respect to the domestic, and since 2020, she is the director of the Master’s Program in Architecture. She currently directs the research project “The Construction Society of Educational Establishments: Systems, Typologies, Models. 1968-1978”. Alejandra was curator of the Chilean Pavilion at the 16th Venice Architecture Biennial, and co-curator of the exhibition “The Plot: Miracle and Mirage” at the Chicago 2019 biennial. She has been invited to lecture at The Berlage, The Architectural Association, Universidad de Navarra, Universidad de Torcuato di Tella, and Universidad de Costa Rica.

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