Everything Old is New Again: Architectural Lessons About COVID

Read story
Robison Wells
read story

COVID-19 has changed the country irrevocably and the fallout will last for decades if not centuries. There is no way to foretell all the many ways that the world will be different because of the pandemic, but some architects are looking to past styles when thinking about future construction. Everything old is new again.

1. Water at the entrance of buildings. We have all learned the importance of washing our hands thoroughly before and after every encounter and handshake, but if we look at architectural history we can see that our forbears treated hand washing differently than we have in the 20th century. In most modern buildings, bathrooms are in the back, hidden from view, often behind the closed doors that define a lobby—to get to the bathroom you have to touch many door handles.

But in times past, water was often held near the entrance to houses and public spaces. Take the many fountains in Europe—most of them were for washing first and aesthetics second. As marvelous as the mighty statues might be, these fountains were a place for the public to wash during the day. In the Christian, Muslim, and Hindu worlds, water was placed at the entrance to churches to wash off the uncleanliness of the outside world and purify yourself to enter the space.

It is thought that bringing water back to the entrance of buildings, either with public sinks or easily accessible bathrooms, will serve the same purpose and keep a more germophobic public happy.

2. Speaking of germs, we’ve also learned that there are some types of materials that are much more germ friendly than others, and, much to our dismay, most modern building materials foster colonies of germs for long periods of time. Glass, plastic and steel, for example, the most common elements of modern handrails, balconies, desktops, and armrests, allow germs to thrive for several hours.

But one archaic material is known as a being unfriendly to germs: brass. Copper, a component of brass, is known to degrade viral material much faster than many of our more modern elements. It may be that we see a switch back to the not-too-distant past to brass doorknobs, railings, and handles.

3. Finally, in this age of social distancing, we have learned that there is a big difference between closed space and open space. CDC guidelines currently say that groups of up to ten can gather in an outdoor or open setting, but that in a confined space it can only be family units or roommates. The reason for this is because free-flowing, non-circulated air disperses germs much more than indoor space.

Our ancestors knew this—or practiced it, at least—with courtyards, porches, and lobbies. Entrances to businesses in Beijing are called hutongs, a type of alleyway that allows for passing air; cortes in Venice, lapa in South Africa, and patios in Latin countries are all similar examples of architecture that encourages congregating in open space.

It may very well be that we see a return to these, and other, historical architectural designs in the future as we try to create a new era that is prepared for future germ warfare.

Story tags: