No Looking Back: Lessons from 2020

15 December, 2020

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In normal times this is party season. Not this year unless you count sitting in front of a computer screen with a glass of wine and a bowl of crisps. But will the big office party ever return? Who really knows. Like the debate we’re having over the future of the office, opinion is divided between those who think, once a vaccine is properly available, life will return to normal and those who think it won’t.

But competing visions for the post-pandemic world always ignore that in periods of dramatic change and transformation, there are more elements that stay the same than new things that emerge. The interesting question for architects is what the office might it look like if blended working takes off and employees only come to the office to meet their colleagues and socialise.

The collapse of the high street has also been discussed for a decade or more. But it’s been given an urgency by covid. And although devastating to bricks-and-mortar businesses, the pandemic has created an opportunity for architects to rethink and redesign the high street so it’s less reliant on retail and more on living and working.

And then there’s cities themselves. The new normal’ version is the ’15-minute city‘. This is based on the idea that all essential amenities such shops and schools as well as your place of work are within a 15-minute reach on foot or by bike. In the other camp is the Richard Florida view that global cities like London and New York will not only survive but revive – as they did after even deadlier epidemics in the past – as their commercial buildings become mixed-use spaces.

Will the pandemic really change the housing market? “Do not hold your breath”, Alison Brooks told me when I interviewed her recently. And of course she’s right.

The problem is that years of building high-density one and two-bedroom apartments marketed at affluent young and childless buyers has made the residential property market lazy, rich and risk averse – and when times are tough, even less likely to want to innovate. And let’s face it architects, by and large, answer to their clients.

But just as the pandemic has exposed society’s deep inequalities, it has also exposed some of architecture’s failings  – from tiny apartments with no outdoor space to workplaces that are no longer fit-for-purpose. Some have even called it the built environment’s ‘great existential moment’.  But the debate should not be about what has been built rather what architects will design in the future.

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