As Covid-19’s Great Pause forces a blurring of home, work, office, classroom, studio, and shop, we get a glimpse of the patterns, spaces, and rhythms of a deeper slowdown.
We start at the scale of Saarinen’s chair outlined in the previous paper. In Stockholm, approximately half the city’s population is working from home, after only a suggestion to do so by the government. In other cities—London, New York, Berlin—working from home is more or less mandated by their governments. For years many have ‘worked from home’, and regularly. Yet we have never flicked a switch like this, shifting the broad mass of professional classes at least, back into their homes, in order to work.
And whilst many cannot work from home, clearly, it’s worth noting that in Europe, “professionals” (not a particularly meaningful description) is the most frequent job type. The majority of jobs in London (around 76%) can work from home, and almost immediately they have done so, with mobile phone data showing a reduction of 43% city centre workers travelling into the city centre by the Friday before the Prime Minister’s lockdown announcement. With the lockdown, those numbers have plummeted further.
The home is now full of hacks for workspaces, with repurposed cellars, hallways, staircases, kitchen tables. There are stories of people making ironing boards into impromptu standing desks.
If feels like we have half the world wearing masks, and the other half wearing headphones.
The Instagram account of Ukrainian-born architect and social designer, Dasha Tsapenko, is currently a performance piece she calls ‘exercises on #spatialdomestication’, in which she drapes and angles herself around the ledges and edges of her Netherlands apartment. It’s a sharp piece, but she also looks like she’s endlessly searching for the right place to work from, as a dog circles before settling on the floor.
Most homes are not designed for work, such is the thoroughness with which modernity separated out form around disparate functions. The lazy phrase that “my office is wherever my cellphone is” was never more clearly false. It is awkward to work in this way. Despite years of a half-hearted interest in this area, there has been little true engagement with the idea of home-work not as a binary opposition, but a richly diverse continuum of spaces, fixtures, technologies, and modes.
Apps like Zoom can mask your domestic environment with virtual backgrounds, just as noise-cancelling headphones can mask the sound of your flatmates, children, pets. Yet given that the pandemic could well continue for much of the year, and working from home will do likewise, will we see a genuine design response that does not mask, or negate, but supports?
If feels like we have half the world wearing masks, and the other half wearing headphones. That is clearly not ideal, although it is a valid tactical response, perhaps. But how might softer, more tactile materials be used to create nooks, enclosures, and screens to shape spatial and aural environments for video conferencing? What forms of furniture can repurpose to counterpoint or ameliorate the hours spent in front of screens? Given many are lecturing from home, workshopping from home, running meetings from home, how do ‘normal people’ incorporate some approximation of the lighting, microphones, and acoustic baffles of a TV studio into our home’s furniture? How might realignments of our domestic spaces address the intense condition of everyone working at home simultaneously, with minute, subtle shifts between work-mode and other modes moving across tight friend and family groups like complex weather patterns?
With many children now learning from home — again a pattern discussed for decades, but now just activated within a week or two — parents are now in close proximity to their children’s classrooms, almost sitting at the back of the class, but they are also forced to confront the fact that most kids spent most of their time out of school anyway, learning or otherwise. Now the home has to carry some form of classroom environment, too, just as the neighbourhood does. This again plays to patterns that have been discussed for decades — known as the flipped classroom — but now it extends them, such that the entire school is flipped inside out. This would be highly beneficial for learning, and for the neighbourhood too, but only if we think about how it could work.
There is no doubt an increased pressure on a space not designed for families and friends working from home, or living together almost 24/7. This pressure is both physical and spatial, as well as psychological, emotional, social. The toll on many, in terms of mental health and wellbeing, will be crushing over time. For those with existing mental health issues, it will be particularly dangerous (for schoolchildren in particular, perhaps); yet for most, it will be challenging. By far the majority of dwellings we live in have not been designed for this.
We will also need to rethink how that pressure can be dissipated over time and space in different ways, building out new spaces, or conditions, for disconnecting, not-working but also not-interacting, for zoning out as well as tuning in, for shifting layers of privacy, focus and congregation. Yet another reason to thumb once more through foundation texts which focus specifically on the psychological and sensual rather than simply functional, like Jun’ichirō Tanizaki’s ‘In Praise of Shadows’ or Leonard Koren’s ‘Undesigning the Bath’, perhaps.
For all the functional requirements of Zoom calls, given the context of a domestic space this would not be a time for user-centred design enforcing a too-functional focus, persona-scenario work adorning time-and-motion studies from bathroom to living room to login and the awkward ballet of Bluetooth pairing between headphones and multiple devices, driven by metrics for ‘Time-to-Zoom’. From Koren:
“An underlying goal of ergonomics, user friendly-ness, product semantics, and of ‘responsible’ industrial design generally is to recast our entire material world into something more useful and predictable. This goal may be fine for utlitarian applications like automobile interiors, video cameras, and computer keyboards, but such values mean little when applied to the bath, a rangy, complex, and only partially functional entity.”—Leonard Koren, ‘Undesigning the Bath’ (1996)
That phrase—“a rangy, complex, and only partially functional entity”—describes much of the home-work condition, shifting between the highly functional requirements of cooking and videoconferencing and an uncharted array of more complex social and psychological interactions. Given design’s typical focus on the former—the functional and material—it indicates how tough the brief is when considering social, psychological and emotional concerns of a lockdown.
Perhaps a particularly interesting direction would be to look at the very real work that has been happening in the home forever: the work done largely by women, which used to be called ‘housework’, and in recent years has been more accurately described as ‘unpaid work’. Would this give us a clue as to how to incorporate work and the home—or rather, just how not to?
A key text here would be ‘Making Space: Women and the Man-Made Environment’, produced by Matrix, a group of UK-based feminist designers, in 1984. I was lucky enough to find this a charity shop in north London, and although it’s written from a British perspective, it’s an extraordinary book I’d recommend to anyone.
Describing a history of domestic and urban spaces through a feminist lens, it’s both practical and polemic, accessible, including a section on how to read a plan, and authoritative. A central essay tracks the story of domestic housing design from Xenophon’s Oeconomicus to Robert Kerr’s The Gentlemen’s House, which defined Victorian architecture for the ‘well-to-do’, via the two-up, two-down terrace, the garden city cottage, thirties semi-, post-war council houses, and the sixties and seventies housing following the influential 1961 Parker Morris report ‘Homes for Today and Tomorrow’. In each of these, the role of ‘work’ is foregrounded, albeit with assumptions of the “the kitchen as the ‘work centre’ of the house … assumed to be the realm of the housewife.”
Yet we would learn a lot from their focus on work in the home—that is, work as unpaid labour—and repositioning via a richer view of today’s more complex and advanced gender roles and equally, the huge variety of kinds of work now also being thrown at the home. Taking apart the key design guides of 1972 and 1974, Matrix conclude:
“It represents the sequestering of the nuclear family, and the domestication of all activities associated with survival. There are no public or communal facilities; it accommodates an introverted family lifestyle …”—‘Making Space: Women and the Man-Made Environment’, Matrix (1984)
Those words—sequestering, survival, introversion—have particular resonance right now, just as designers will still be able to derive powerful insights from these Matrix critiques of sexist and oppressive housing design. Their work demands a careful yet progressive understanding of how people actually live and work in domestic spaces, and now we might use it to reposition what concepts like ‘work’ and ‘home’ even mean.
“This critique has tried to expose some of the assumptions made about women and houses in design guides, not simply to add to the checklist of things designers should take notice of, but to begin to suggest house designs that reflect the richness and value of women’s experience. Such designs would neither assume that women are part of nuclear family units with children and husband, nor would they try to contain and confine women who do care for children.” — ‘Making Space: Women and the Man-Made Environment’, Matrix (1984)
The diversity of living conditions has only multiplied since 1984, yet work like Matrix’s book, as what we’d now call norm-critical design approaches, would help shape how to find new spaces we require.
In Swedish, there’s a concept of ‘smultronstället’, which literally translates as ‘wild strawberries place’ (hence the title of the famous Bergman film) but idiomatically means a personally special yet unassuming, quiet place, usually with sentimental value, and actually secret, even hidden—somewhere to escape to. Often associated with a house, and often a summer house and its surrounds, we may need to carve out such ‘smultronstället spaces’ within a house. Such small pockets of personal space embedded within shared domestic spaces have been produced by good architects many times over, for a wide variety of budgets. Yet they still tend not to make it through the mainstream speculative models most Western housing markets produce at scale, usually with diminishing size and quality.
Speaking of strawberries, we may also want to find ways of radically increasing biodiversity in and around the home, with increased mental and physical health and wellbeing in mind, as well as numerous other co-benefits. Again, this is a pattern that has been developing for years, which the virus could fast-forward. It still tends not to be prioritised—at least compared to how a more-than-human-centred design would approach it—in either the well-meaning though hermetically-sealed variations on the passivhaus model or other, older models of housing that intrinsically reject the natural environment.
There are plenty of high-end one-offs built around vegetation, biodiversity—the usual epic Japanese stuff, Bawa, Ambasz, Swedish naturhus—yet building this well into affordable housing is less common. Building it well into almost any building, likewise: Edwin Heathcote quite rightly railed against what he saw as a thoughtless trend of ‘green fluff’ plaguing many recent buildings.
Indeed one can question whether Stefano Boeri Architetti’s bosco verticale towers, the most prominent example, have entirely missed the point of tree root systems. (The point being, that they are connected). In a 2018 essay for Harvard Design Magazine, Daniel A. Barber and Erin Putalik subtly criticise the mentality of reducing trees to mere ‘systems’. Whilst noting that trees in buildings such as these usefully protect interiors from wind, dust, noise, and excessive heat, while releasing humidity and oxygen and absorbing carbon dioxide, they also describe how the tower’s occupants are actually separated from the trees themselves; they are not part of the occupant’s property at all: “the occupants of the towers are surrounded by the forest, but legally isolated from it.” This diminution of vegetation to mere plumbing, as opposed to being an active participant in a living building, smacks of smart city reductiveness.
“Maybe we can aspire instead to produce architectural visions that help us imagine forests and trees as a “community to which we belong” rather than systems to be exploited. Could high-profile eco-projects instead question the insatiable drive for newness and bigness and enable emerging conceptions of the members of the vegetal realm as irreducible, incalculable, and unsystemetizable … yet utterly essential?”—‘Forest, Tower, City: Rethinking the Green Machine Aesthetic’, Daniel A. Barber, Erin Putalik, №45 2018
Heathcote is right to point out the true value of trees and other foliage in streets and public parks as far more equitable and effective forms of infrastructure, as well as foregrounding the value of planting for food at home (with health benefits as well as strong wellbeing effects, alongside the general environmental value encouraged by municipal programmes such as Amsterdam Rainproof.) This is where projects like PAKT in Antwerp or the various Joost Greenhouses are particularly interesting.
In the context of the smaller home, the straw-bale house at Stock Orchard Street in London, designed by Sarah Wrigglesworth and Jeremy Till, for living and working in, remains an exemplar of balancing multiple programmes, alongside food growing for the home.
“We have returned it to a state in which multiple uses easily coexist: living, working, gardening, bicycle-mending, hen-keeping, pond-dipping.”—Sarah Wrigglesworth
Yet the genuinely public projects of the 1970s indicate what can be done at scale, such as social housing at Ivry-sur-Seine, by Jean Renaudie and Renée Gailhoustet, or Wohnpark Alt-Erlee in Vienna, by Kurt Hlaweniczka, Harry Glück, Thomas Reinthaller, Franz Requat, or Dunboyne Road Estate in London by Neave Brown. Note, in these examples, the importance of balconies, something else that the virus has highlighted.
These spaces—complex, resilient, super-green—will ride out this storm, and adapt well to new patterns of living and working in the same place, given the open diversity of spaces and amenities built around and within private residences. They begin to unlock the ‘new garden city’ ideas found in the next paper. And you can touch the greenery, for sure.
Yet in the contemporary home, there are other ways to distribute different psychological conditions across spaces—including looking at the devices we carry with us through space. My Arup team and I worked with the Studio Folder for the Swiss company Punkt on their ‘no distraction’ MP02 cellphone — a phone, not a smartphone — which was designed as an alternative to the hegemony of iPhone and Android, or just attention-grabbing notification culture. Instead, it respects personal and mental space by conjuring it out of thin air, by quietly doing as little as possible, giving people a way to switch into ‘Punkt-mode’, removing distractions in order to create space to think.
What’s the domestic architecture equivalent of this, given this recent invasion of work? A secluded space that can switch to enable focus and separation? ‘Smultronstället spaces’? A chair that is just a good chair?
Some speak of redesigning the home for quarantine, assuming we don’t reverse our tendency to create pandemics. I don’t buy this; I believe in the short-term we will get very good at temporary curve-flattening, rapid vaccine production, and coordinated responses, with adaptations of Eastern models of governance predicated on collective liberty and not simply individual liberty. And in the medium- to long-term we will finally address the climate crisis by reorienting ourselves around goals of producing, promoting, and protecting biodiversity at scale, preventing diseases at source.
We are social animals, first and foremost, and if we can’t be with others physically, spatially, environmentally, what’s the actual point? We will find a way through this, and we might look to extrapolate some positive themes, but we must not descend into making snap design decisions that are essentially inhuman and anti-social. Given our reliance on social, civic and collective responses to viruses, over and above science, that will only reduce our resilience further. So no, we need not turn our homes into prison cells or field hospitals, our piazzas and beaches into holding pens or cubicle farms.
Just as proximity must remain, so must connection. We may wish to explore different materials — as noted previously, copper, cardboard, cork, fabrics, forms of wood may be more appropriate than steel and plastic, just as our clothing doesn’t appear to absorb and carry viruses. We can also expect some existing cultural practices to extend their footprint, such as the Nordic and Japanese expectation that you remove your shoes upon entering a house. This may help, and suggests subtle domestic architecture retrofits, like incorporating the equivalent of the genkan into the home, just as many more in the ‘West’ may start wearing face masks when sick with any infection, well beyond the virus. These may become to be seen indicators of ‘civilisation’ more broadly now.
Yet touch will remain essential to understanding each other, culture, history. I quoted the Finnish architect Juhani Pallasma in my paean to the simple physical light switch in an age of smart homes, “tactile sense connects us with time and tradition: through impressions of touch we shake the hands of countless generations”. Again, this is too important to lose — we must design spaces for touch and resilience; not either/or.
But ‘home-work’ spaces designed specifically to address and resolve all these tensions? That could work, and work well. Functionally, there are precedents in the ‘shop out the front, studio in the back’ model of the Renaissance-era Florentine bottega, or even the live-work studios of ’80s New York. Yet what is this for every home, including in suburbia, and for furniture generally? In this sense, I’m less interested in Alvar Aalto’s ‘cure chair’ (now known as Artek’s Armchair 41 Paimio Chair), designed for tuberculosis sufferers, than his simple curving plywood Screen 100, which effortlessly demarcates space in ways that afford multiple, moveable activities. Screen 100 is a luxury item now, albeit with the true sustainability of lasting several lifetimes, what could more accessible versions be?
Redesigning our domestic spaces for home-work is now a complex brief, covering safe-touch materials, audio-visual workspaces, adaptable furniture, intense greenery, more diverse philosophies of technology, and a richer understanding of social context, psychological states, and emotional and intellectual needs.
Yet for all the discomfort — and the lack of social interaction that a good workspace affords — many are now seeing the virtues of working from home. Not all, but many. For these people, a lack of commute means more time for family and for work, as well as for the daily walk around the neighbourhood, and for those curiously undercooked words, pastimes and hobbies. Commute time in the UK, Australia, and the USA is around an hour a day on average, and incredibly that’s generally increasing. Some of that time is useful; much of it isn’t. Some of it will persist, as workplaces, meetings, and other mobility needs also persist, even for those who are predominantly home-workers, but it could be radically reduced.
This aspect of the forced slowdown has many positives: we hear anecdotal reports of more cooking, less idle consumerism, more making and mending, more talking to the neighbours, community engagement, more emphasis on shopping for local food and sustainable choices. (We will see if the data supports these anecdotes and whether these develop into long-term habits.) Yet a different sense of place seems to be emerging in the popular imagination, allied to a different sense of consumption, too, for now at least.
Some of this is no doubt a preemptive frugality, given fearful reports of the impending global recession, yet it also another weak signal of the kind of deeper Slowdown that Dorling talks about. To be clear again, we cannot talk of Covid-19 being positive. Yet the current, extremely visceral sense of Slowdown does provide some with a glimpse of what it might feel like. Will that change enough minds to help open up the possibility of systemic change?
We will return to the streets, once the curve is flattened, an antidote is found. Yet will we return to the same patterns as before? I‘m not so sure. Or rather, I don’t think we have to. The real Slowdown — the one lying underneath the coronavirus-induced Great Pause, and not involving people dying — could genuinely be a good thing, but only if there is enough collective will and action to make it so. Dorling writes:
“Slowdown gives us time to worry more about one another and less about what we will ourselves receive in future. Slowdown means more time to question all that our grandparents never had time to question, because they were dealing with so much that was new. Slowdown means goods lasting longer; it means less waste. It means that many of the things that we currently think of as great social and environmental problems will not be problematic in future.” — Danny Dorling, ‘Slowdown’ (2020)
In the next paper, the Saarinen Principle moves us up a notch to the scale of the house, garden, street, playground, neighbourhood …
This is the second batch of Slowdown Papers, a series of observations, reflections, and ideas, emerging from my view of the early impact of the coronavirus Covid–19 pandemic in the first quarter of 2020. All Slowdown Paper are collected here.
13: From Lockdown to Slowdown
“Chair-room-house-environment-city plan”; how the coronavirus could change the strategy for our patterns of distribution of workplaces and work, from home to town to countryside to nation.
14: From Lockdown to Slowdown: Home-Work-Farm
As Covid-19’s Great Pause forces a blurring of home, work, office, classroom, studio, and shop, we get a glimpse of the patterns, spaces, and rhythms of a deeper slowdown.
15: From Lockdown to Slowdown: House-Playground-Street
Circling around our homes and their environs due to coronavirus-induced loops, how do the patterns, edges, and dynamics of neighbourhoods change in the Slowdown?
16: From Lockdown to Slowdown: Neighbourhood-City-Country
The Slowdown brings the return of the ABC-City, neighbourhood markets, and greenness on the edge of town.
17: From Lockdown to Slowdown: Region-Country-Continent
The changing dynamics of a deeper ‘slowdown’, hinted at by the coronavirus-induced ‘pause’, could change the distribution and dynamics of production and consumption across city, region, and nation, with outcomes not only for sustainability, resilience, and wellbeing but also politics.
18: From Lockdown to Slowdown: Tokyo as Slowdown City
Polka dot city Tokyo as an exemplar of ‘Slowdown’ theory, as the world’s largest and smallest city, and as a case study for others post-COVID.
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