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The Flipping of Our Public and Private Worlds

Architecture, like music, is a public art. Both depend upon the larger public as viewers/listeners/consumers in order to exist; both suffer when public spaces, and public access, are in short supply. Today that is very much the case.

Because I am both an architect and a singer, for many years I wrote a blog called Frozen Music. My choral music community is a big part of my life. During this pandemic, my choral music colleagues have been figuring out ways of singing together. We can’t help it—singing sustains us.

Some of the results have been inspiring, but no one is happy to lose the visceral pleasure of singing together in the same space. There are lots of videos that use a form of ZOOM editing to produce “performances” among actors, singers, and instrumentalists. One of the best was produced recently at Julliard in New York. They aren’t happy to be playing in a virtual orchestra; you can see it in the faces of each student and teacher at the famous school. 

For architecture, there is a sliver of a silver lining to the pandemic, in that private spaces—houses, apartments, gardens—have attained a public presence for all of us. We must work, exercise, play, worship, watch performances, clean up, and do business from our domestic environments. More important, our home places must be capable of sustaining us in these activities. “Working from home” has taken on a new meaning. Apparently some companies are institutionalizing the practice, which will lead to fewer office rentals, and eventually the need to find new uses for the vacant buildings.

In a recent book on house renovations and additions, my co-author, Gordon Bock, and I underlined the coming requirement for more in-home telecommuting and workspaces. We understood 10 years ago that many societal factors were forcing businesses and institutions to find ways of bringing work, and workers, together “remotely,” as the cost of office space increased and commuting times lengthened. There is no question that designers now confront these problems with a new urgency.

If the house is to become a primary workspace, how will designers address the need to provide necessary privacy for other members of the family who cannot be near those working (for whatever reason, including the noise each may make)? Many of us in quarantine are confronting these issues every day, if our family members are near our home offices. There are solutions to this, but we have to think seriously about which ones are acceptable in our particular situations, with different ages, sexes, and health conditions in every family.

On the other side of the coin, urbanists throughout the world are talking and writing about the pressing need for more public spaces in cities, as new desires for fresh air and exercise push people out of their cramped houses and apartments. These policy experts and designers have been making the same case for decades, generally to deaf and dumb politicians who listen only to developers and business interests when it comes to new planning initiatives. Even the so-called public spaces in developments like Hudson Yards in New York require passes for non-residents. We’re not building enough parks, bikeways, pedestrian squares, or open-air performance venues to meet the demand of our citizens. The same situation persists worldwide, only mitigated in some societies (Spain, Italy, Mexico perhaps) where “ramblas” and public piazzas have been built for centuries and continue to be used by everyone. In temperate climates larger public spaces make sense; elsewhere it may be impractical to build and condition such spaces. 

Even increased access to public transportation and the need to keep auto traffic from clogging city streets have become hot-button issues in the new world of social distancing and epidemics. John Massengale, a noted Congress for the New Urbanism leader and expert on street design, has proposed new ways of “greening” New York streets by limiting vehicle speeds and auto access to some side streets throughout lower Manhattan. These design strategies have been used successfully in Europe but have seldom been employed successfully in the United States. It is high time we looked more seriously at them.

As the distance between our private realms and our public ones increases, so the need for each becomes more acute. This paradox is one that all architects should embrace, and confront immediately.

As the distance between our private realms and our public ones increases, so the need for each becomes more acute. This paradox is one that all architects should embrace, and confront immediately. It is the kind of design challenge that has spurred us to action during many crises, from the Fire of London to the destruction of the Twin Towers. Historically, humans have often created new architecture to meet these exigencies head on; crises have indeed produced innovation and change. 

Our unfortunate political standoffs have only made these challenges greater, but we are certainly capable of rising to them in the current moment of shared suffering that has leveled some class and income distinctions and exacerbated others. African Americans and Latinos have disproportionately suffered from COVID-19, and are more often cooped up in cramped, crowded apartments near outbreak clusters. Architects and urbanists should be addressing their plight with new ideas for housing, recreational areas, and workplaces. We can’t afford to be on the sidelines.

It will be time soon to push for a Green New Deal that puts all those involved in construction, design and engineering back to work on one of our global challenges. As we do so, we can add the need for public space into the arguments for better, more energy-efficient buildings. We can also stress that adaptive reuse is essential to making a greener planet, and press policy makers to offer incentives, such as tax credits, to encourage private investment in this area of construction. One of the best ways out of the coming recession will be a jobs generator in the vein of New Deal programs.

Increasing lobbying and political advocacy has been a goal of the American Institute of Architects for many years. It is time to make that goal a reality. Only when architects and designers take to the streets and ask Congress to pass legislation favoring the construction of better public spaces—and better housing for all—will we have the kind of impact that we dreamed of during the 1960s (and 1920s). We don’t need an architectural revolution, but we’ll surely benefit from revolutionary political strategies in the coming years. As we advance our ideas and propositions, we must be vigilant and powerful in order to make them real. Our neighbors expect this of all those who shape the environment, and there will be grave consequences if we do not act, as private citizens, for the public good.

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