The Utter Folly of Certainty in Uncertain Times
The flurry of articles about “The New Architecture of COVID-19” is all trees, no forest. And for good reason: We don’t know yet if the forest is growing, dying, or being cleared, let alone the tree species. We’re in full myopic mode. But in an effort to simulate perspective, we’re treated almost every day to a Groundhog’s Day litany of “experts.” I am not buying it.
Think of this as the beginning of a social Ice Age: We can sense that the temperature is changing (today no handshakes, let alone hugs). Some familiar animals are vanishing, some are still common but woeful (offices are empty, people more often work from home). The barriers are growing, masks are commonplace (centering our lives around a social existence, where people have to be together has, for many, ended).
The grinding continuation of shutdowns—and now the giddy, politized reopenings, all with the impervious virus lurking—adds to the confusion and unease. We’re still in a vortex of uncertainty. Have infections peaked? Is a second wave inevitable? How many will eventually perish? Will we ever reach herd immunity? (And what about Major League Baseball?!) Some of the answers here remain beyond the reach of science right now. Damn.
Nonetheless, we have an unending stream of articles on how architecture will change—definitively, permanently—because people want closure. We want a path. We want to be essential. In truth, we’re powerless. Despite global change, this is not like the Chicxulub meteorite that struck the Earth 66 million years ago and killed the dinosaurs. It is a quieter crisis. Perhaps it’s more heroic now to listen—carefully, thoughtfully—because we really do not know what dinosaurs in our culture the COVID-19 meteorite will obliterate.
Despite the instinct to find reasons for and outcomes caused by this weird time, it might be good to remember other fraught times and what we thought when we were in the middle of them. Who knew at the beginning of World War II that there would be an additional half-century of proxy wars when it was over? Who knew that needle-like towers would infest midtown Manhattan just a handful of years after airplanes destroyed the two tallest buildings a few miles south? Who knew we had to repair all those bridges when we built the federal highway system?
Designers may be wrong, but they are seldom uncertain. Architects once knew that cities had to be razed to end the clogged oppression of city streets and dirty tenement buildings. Urban planners knew that cars would transform our work world into central hubs and remote homes. As far back as eight decades ago, we imagined a future filled with flying cars! We’re now sure that climate change means coastal development might mean retreat, rather than continue to be the frontal assault it has been for the last century.
Today we know that “density” is the only answer—or that it can never happen in our lifetime. We know that the “open office” is unthinkable now, that virtual meetings will replace office buildings—or that once we have a vaccine there will be a “return to normalcy.”
Any of these scenarios might be true. Half of them will not be. I am fully frustrated by these determinist projections when the facts on the ground are changing daily. Patience may be virtuously polite, but it’s also necessary if we are to make real change instead of just creating noise. Part of me wants to scream “Shut up!” when I hear another “expert” devine a future whose present is still radically evolving. But that’s just me. SERENITY NOW!
Feature imaged via Space.com.