We’re already seeing semi-permanent changes being made to stores and gas stations: plastic barricades are going up to protect cashiers from the breath of customers and yellow lines are painted in parking lots to mark where queues should form to wait their turn to enter the store. It’s likely that we’ll see many more innovations in the coming months and years as we learn from this pandemic how to curtail future ones. But this isn’t the first time that architecture has changed radically because of mass sickness and disease. Just as COVID-19 is changing modern structures, 18th century tuberculosis, 19th century cholera, and 20th century Spanish flu forever altered the way architecture is used in cities.
Between 1810 and 1825, tuberculosis accounted for more than 25% of deaths in New York City, and it was the discovery of this contagion that led to the sanitorium movement in Europe and the United States, where the sick were taken out from the population and brought to sanitoriums which were intended to house, treat and isolate patients. These institutions ensured strict hygiene and ample exposure to air and sunlight, because before there was medicinal treatment for tuberculosis, the treatment was environmental. It was these modern sanitoriums that directly led to the Modernist Movement of architecture. Swiss architect Le Corbusier said “A house is only habitable when it is full of light and air.”
Corbusier encouraged people to strip their homes of needless clutter, eliminate carpet and heavy furniture, and keep the walls and floors clear. In 1925 he envisioned a spartan city where every home is whitewashed and “there are no more dirty, dark corners. Everything is shown as it is. Then comes inner cleanness.”
Historian Paul Overy wrote in his book Light, Air, and Openness, that dust lodged in decorative features was “an enemy of hygiene to be eradicated at all costs.” Minimalist designs got rid of fancy ornaments and replaced them with simple forms that could be easily washed and sterilized. Upholstery designers gave up silks and velvets for fabrics which could be cleaned and washed.
Along with this was an encouragement to step into the light and air. Terraces, balconies, and flat roofs are common in modernist architecture as they allowed people to move out into the open air where disease is harder spread. Corbusier said of our densely packed cities “Hygiene and moral health depend on the lay-out of cities. Without hygiene and moral health, the social cell becomes atrophied.”
We have yet to see what architectural innovations will come as an effect of the coronavirus, but it’s certain that there will be lasting effects. Some architects have guessed that we’ll see more space in stores, airports, and hotels for lines to allow for social distancing. Others have guessed we’ll see smaller venues to decrease the mass density of theaters and stadiums. Whatever happens, we’re sure to see the effects of this pandemic reflected in redesigns that will be seen for decades to come.