How Diseases Shaped Architecture in the Past

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Robison Wells
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An in-depth article in The New Yorker last month described the history of modern architecture and came to the conclusion that much of what we view as “modern sensibilities” can be traced back to the tuberculosis epidemic of the early 20th century. Specifically, a ground breaker was the 1933 Paimio Sanitorium, a hospice for tuberculosis patients in Finland, designed by Hugo Alvar Henrik Aalto, was a big shift away from the 1920s and 1910s. What had been the norm: dark buildings lit with lamps and fires, covered with fabrics and draperies, was all gone. The new sanitorium was “rigidly geometric, with long walls of expansive windows wrapping its façade, light-colored rooms, and a wide roof terrace with railings like the ones on cruise ships—all the hallmarks of what we now know as modernist architecture.” In fact, this rigid geometric shape and long expansive windows can describe just about every skyscraper being built for the last seventy years, in true Bauhaus tradition.

The point of the building was to secure the safety of the patients and aid in their healing (though by modern understanding of medicine, some of their techniques are a little odd). “The room design is determined by the depleted strength of the patient, reclining in his bed,” Aalto explained. “The color of the ceiling is chosen for quietness, the light sources are outside of the patient's field of vision, the heating is oriented toward the patient’s feet.”

“Tuberculosis helped make modern architecture modern,” the Princeton professor Beatriz Colomina writes in her revisionary history “X-Ray Architecture.” The industrialized austerity of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe or Marcel Breuer “is unambiguously that of the hospital,” the empty white walls, bare floors, and clean metal fixtures are all “surfaces that, as it were, demonstrate their cleanliness.”

A character in Thomas Mann’s novella “Tristan,” from 1903, described a “long, white, rectilinear” sanatorium for lung patients: “This brightness and hardness, this cold, austere simplicity and reserved strength . . . has upon me the ultimate effect of an inward purification and rebirth.”

So how will COVID-19 change the modern architecture moving forward? One solution is what is being called “the six-foot office.” Carpet tiles have been changed to show distances between people, as a constant reminder of how close you’re standing. Conference rooms have had half their chairs removed and everyone in the room exits in a counter-clockwise direction, so no one bumps into each other. There is also the death of the much-maligned “open office.”

Some suggestions have taken things further, giving trackers on phones that alert you if you’re standing too close to someone else, but those haven’t gone over very well.

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