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How to Build a Better World

[A deserted 23rd Street, in Manhattan’s Flatiron District. Credit: Alex Potemkin]

Esra Akcan RI '20, a professor in Cornell's Department of Architecture, answers questions as part of a series on the wide-ranging effects of COVID-19.

Author By Interview Ryan Mulcahy Published 04.28.2020 Share this page on Facebook Share this page on Twitter Share this page on LinkedIn Copy Link

This interview is part of a cross-disciplinary series examining the real and possible effects of the COVID-19 crisis.

Esra Akcan is the 2019–2020 Frieda L. Miller Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute, an associate professor in the Department of Architecture at Cornell University, and the director of the Cornell Institute for European Studies. As a fellow, she conducted research toward her new book, “Right to Heal,” which will explore the role of architecture following the upheaval of a crisis such as state violence, forced migration, epidemic, economic meltdown, or environmental disaster.

Is there a history of epidemics, or other crises, altering how we think about and design our buildings and communities?

Epidemics and disasters have indeed motivated some new urban planning and architecture initiatives in the past. The 19th-century cholera pandemic exposed the liability of the water distribution system and eventually brought the improvement of the sanitary infrastructure in London; it necessitated the update and extension of the underground sewage system in Paris; and it caused the removal and transfer of existing cemeteries to the outskirts in Istanbul. As a matter of fact, “hygiene” was the catchphrase for many of the modern city planning initiatives of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The garden-city as a settlement model—employed in modified forms all around the globe, from Germany to Japan, from Uganda to India—was devised partially with the conviction that the reestablishment of human contact with nature in industrial times would prevent contemporary public health hazards. Interwar and midcentury public housing models—which, ironically, have been stigmatized since—were actually designed internationally with hygiene and health priorities in mind, as freestanding building blocks in open space meant to provide ample sun, air, and green to all habitants. Architects with early 20th-century modernist design sensibilities advocated minimal, unornamented, and functional spaces and surfaces partially because they were easy to clean. Architecture was believed to cure tuberculosis in sanatoriums with large balconies that were open to sun and air flow.

The list can be expanded. However, most of these solutions did not pay enough attention to, and even constructed, the socioeconomic, racial-ethnic and global inequalities that we still live with, and that COVID-19 exposes. To refer to a classic book, Michel Foucault analyzed how plague prevention during the end of the 17th century evolved into panopticism, where the modern prison as an architectural type serves as a metaphor for our surveillance society. Modernization and sanitization of Paris under Georges-Eugène Haussmann was famously brutal in destroying the city fabric and displacing the poor. When the architect Ernst May—who promoted public hygiene and social equality in Frankfurt’s housing program—landed in colonial Kampala, he designed separate and different dwelling types for European, Asian, and African populations. Today, many world cities are segregated along similar class and racial lines and push disenfranchised populations to zones with worse environmental conditions and fewer health-care opportunities compared with affluent neighborhoods. The fact that more people in the United States are dying during the current pandemic in housing areas where people of color and immigrants reside has a lot to do with these historically produced discriminatory and exploitative land-use processes. COVID-19 exposes how the modern planning and architectural design that invented sanitary cities also produced ruthless inequalities. 

Moreover, there are ample examples in the recent past when human-induced disasters did not bring the necessary institutional and ethical-political reforms in the built environment. Usually there is a two-phase architectural response to disasters. First, there is the emergency relief space in the acute phase, such as medical treatment and mass quarantine locations, or temporary shelters. Second, there is presumably the “permanent” solution purporting to turn life to the “new normal,” which often falls short. Think of each time things were reconstructed with slight or no improvement after a flood or an earthquake, or handled with good intentioned but Band-Aid-type fragmented solutions. There are also ample cases where the status quo used disasters opportunistically to advance their own agendas, such as the earthquake threat in Istanbul, or devised solutions only to save the wealthy, such as the projects to protect Wall Street from rising sea levels. The real causes of recent disasters and crises following climate change or market crashes are unfortunately quite deeply ingrained and omnipresent in the world we currently live in.

[Esra Akcan. Photo by Tony Rinaldo]Is it possible to separate the future of architecture from the future of crowds? Can we feel confident making decisions related to the former while the latter is in such flux?

Planning and architectural design, by definition, make predictions and decisions about the future. But the future is never to be taken for granted—as we are now reminded, confronting our vulnerability—and, more important, should not be perceived with social-engineering eyes, as if those in power have the entitlement to dictate how societies will live. This has led me to think about the value of what I call “open architecture” in the sense of the translation of a new ethics of hospitality into the design process, the welcoming of another mind into one’s own. I was particularly thinking about this in the context of international migration, because noncitizens are the most vulnerable when it comes to human rights protections and social citizenship. COVID-19 also exposes that migrants who are deemed illegal are doing the essential work that makes them more vulnerable while sustaining the lives of citizens. To answer your question about planning for constantly changing situations and habitants, there are formal, procedural, and programmatic ways of designing open architecture by considering, for instance, the flexibility and adaptability of form, participation and radical democracy in decision making, collaboration and collectivity during the design process, anticipation of the multiplicity of meaning, and open-sourceable design that integrates feedback.

There’s likely to be lots of discussion in the coming months about reducing density where we work, eat, and live. What do we lose when we make those changes—is there value in density? And are there ways architecture can compensate for what’s lost?

Each epidemic creates its own scapegoat and hatred, whether this is directed against an entire nation, immigrants, or species. In the past few weeks, I have been watching the statements that blame urban density for the pandemic, especially in New York’s case, rather than, say, dictatorial governing structures that block freedom of journalists and delay information, or authorities that trivialize scientists and experts until it is too late. It is true that dense and large cities are challenged during infectious disease outbreaks, because of the increased probability of close physical contact and transmission of virus. However, there is plenty of evidence suggesting that urban density in itself does not produce the outcome, as the pandemic took tolls in less densely populated areas in Italy, while cities as dense as or denser than New York, such as Seoul and Tokyo, have controlled it with relative success for reasons yet to be understood. Quick jumps into one-dimensional, long-term conclusions about de-densification, flight from tall buildings, living in sprawling environments and isolated houses in gardens, and de-investment in public transportation, do not take other disasters into consideration, such as climate change (which is augmented by the inefficient use of space and increased commute), obesity, and social and racial segregation.

Even though it is too soon to make a reliable analysis, COVID-19 seems to be exposing other inconvenient truths about the built environment as well, such as the absence of disaster preparedness, the lack of effective surface-sanitation infrastructure and regulations, the segregation of settlements along class and racial lines, and unconnected urban-rural systems that may overwhelm the food supply chain. Prevention of not only overcrowding but also wasteful use of resources depends on a very careful optimization of urban density, which will probably differ from place to place depending on each city’s specific circumstances. When I think of an example as an architectural historian, I am reminded of the “minimal existence” calculations in Europe during the interwar period that were meant to respond to the housing shortage with social-equality values. According to those architects, it was better for societies to produce many small but qualified dwellings for all rather than a few large ones for the wealthy. In other words, if there is going to be a land settlement reform that rethinks urban density, the result will not be independent from the political values that currently exist or may be transformed with this pandemic. Just as there is a dictatorial and a democratic way to control the pandemic, there are different ways of living, working, and socializing to come after the pandemic, which will hopefully reflect transformed values in the direction of more social, global, and environmental justice.

In what kinds of environments—work, home, public transit, etc.—do you expect COVID-19 to have the most immediate impact?

The conception of home has already changed for many, as people turn their apartments to home-offices or self-isolate from other family members. During the acute crisis phase, I wish there were the will and means for a redistribution of space, reprogramming of some buildings and more sterilization services, so that essential workers do not need to travel far distances and can work in safer environments, and so that homelessness could be addressed. I also wish the global digital infrastructure could be improved with subsidized technology and free Internet access for all, so that no one is left behind when we need to connect with means beyond the physical space. After the acute phase of the crisis but before the total control of the virus (discovery of the vaccine), I guess large auditoriums and halls will remain deserted, cultural and educational buildings will open only for small, controlled crowds, nursing homes will continue to be sealed. Some will continue working from home, connecting digitally and not using public transportation. But the truth is, only the privileged can afford to sustain themselves in this way, and a more socially just response would be investing significantly in the surface-sanitation design and sterilization services of public transportation, food and supply chains, waste management, and small businesses so that these spaces are as little prone to a second wave of outbreak as possible. 

When communities and individuals are traumatized by isolation, does that suggest a special role for architects in helping society to heal? Should we be looking to designers and architects for leadership?

I am tempted to answer your question with the sound of seven o’clock in New York. Even though the city is uncharacteristically quiet during the day, there is an outburst of loudness for two minutes at seven o’clock every day when people in their apartments, stacked side-by-side and on top of each other, clap hands to thank the medical workers. This assures me every single day that there are thousands like me in my vicinity who are going through a related experience, even if I do not see or run into them on the street. Some blame urban density for the pandemic, but the social solidarity with anonymous crowds that emerges in cities also heals the feeling of isolation.

Healing is a tall order, but there are struggles toward healing that start, in my opinion, when societies confront inconvenient truths and build up the will for an institutional and political change. However, I need to put a cautionary remark on the idea of “architect-leader.” Throughout the 20th century, the self-image of the architect shifted from a hero that knows best and can single-handedly change society to a powerless technocrat who cannot do much but deliver on clients’ demands. A more sensible description is somewhere in between, where the architect becomes a collaborator and participant in analyzing the situations and taking actions.

Interview was edited for clarity and length.

Also in this series:

Fran Berman on digital contact tracing

Sara Bleich on food insecurity 

Liette Gidlow on voting rights

Liz Chiarello on the opioid crisis

Lawrence F. Katz on the economy

Heather Paxson on home cooking

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