Two years ago, we hugged. Do you remember? We kissed – kisses on the cheek, two or three… maybe more, kisses on the hand, kisses in the air… public expressions of intimacy, friendship, respect, gratitude, governed by codes of conduct, customs and traditions, informed by history. COVID-19 changed that. Social distancing, masks, health codes, trackers… new rules and new customs transformed our relationships. As global vaccination programs reduce infection rates, it is clear that life will never return to the normal of the past. The future will be different.
The widespread use of online tools for everyday interaction that became obligatory during the lockdowns and extended periods in quarantine, saved relationships… families separated by long distances, colleagues working together, business-partnerships, global and local. Video, synchronous and asynchronous, spontaneous or pre-recorded, became the medium for social encounters of any kind, educational, civic, professional or personal, from the collective to the individual. Social media redefined civic discourse and public space. While real streets and real squares around the world were empty – online, propelled by pattern seeking algorithms, profiling, ‘likes’ and ‘dislikes’, self-organising communities flourished – happiness, sadness, love and hate, amplified by collective expressions of mutual affection or shared despair.
Overcoming the long-term impact of COVID will provoke the invention of new forms of social space. ‘Google Earth’ may look the same – satellite imagery suggesting that cities, towns and villages will conform to recognisable patterns of land-use and built-form. But close-up, the reality hidden in the background of billions of ‘selfies’ will be different, as it has been in the past few months of transition. Architects work with reality. They may dream about a better future, but architectural practices and the construction industry work on the world as it is. The challenge – learning to see it.