Changes occurred in architectural perspective after COVID-19
The pandemic has given many citizens a taste of what densely packed urban areas would be like without so much traffic, and they like it.
The pandemic has created difficulties for city centres – such as exacerbating the problems facing the retail sector – but I hope that something positive might result from it.
Looking at Dijon and Oslo, among other European cities, as examples of how partial or total bans on cars have revitalised city centres, this aspect of movement in urban centres is being considered in London’s West End, and in the City of London.
I also believe that social distancing and increased working from home will shift cities away from permitting the development of isolating high-rise models of residential living and working environments. High-rise living for families is anti-social, inhuman for children and takes away the experience of community and nature.
The high-rise model is broken. When you rely on air-conditioning and lifts, you don’t have a model for the future. If there is social distancing, you will have two, maybe four, people in a lift, and with high-rise offices efficiently moving hundreds of people twice daily becomes impossible.
Residential buildings should be somewhere between three and fivestoreys high. It can be demonstrated that this is economical, urban densities can be compatible with land values, and a human scale maintained. There is also much evidence that it is socially better when people aren’t separated from the street and each other.
A majority of people now have a genuine and deeper interest in the natural world around them, which hasn’t always been the case. I believe that architects should design with nature first – not just ‘with’ nature but truly thinking “nature first”. This means that we must think of nature’s fundamental aspects and our relationships with them: how do you use sunshine, the flow of air, how do you manage and reuse waste and water? It’s about more than simply adding parks and trees, or putting up bird or bat boxes, or having a pond on the roof.
It’s deeper than that; it’s about going back to the invisible dimensions, which means looking at everything much more holistically. What is in the ground? The geology, the water courses? And must we really have to have so many hard, impermeable surfaces in our cities that help cause flooding?
Recommendations to students
Do not overlook the periphery.
For me both personally and professionally the periphery is a fertile place. It’s an edge, a boundary zone, a frontier.When we speak of a frontier, we speak of a challenge. When we say something is ‘cutting edge’, we’re talking of the most daring and creative manifestation of any field of knowledge or research.
In the natural world, boundary zones are the peripheries where ecosystems meet, and are often the richest and most ecologically diverse. The same goes for when intellectual ecosystems meet! The pandemic isolated us more than we realise from these peripheries.
Do not be afraid to relinquish control – remember the periphery.
Relinquishing control in the creative and interpersonal sense can open us to the thrill of creativity and the richness of cooperation and mutuality.
The inadvertent or unwilling loss of control in the personal, professional or cultural sense is another matter.
That is when the centre becomes empty – like the emptiness at the centre of our consumer culture, designed never to be filled – and the periphery becomes neglected, forgotten, ignored and discounted – a zone of danger rather than richness.
Do not overlook connexity.
We may not be the only animal that creates its environment, but we are the only animal which, inadvertently or otherwise, deliberately creates environments which are dysfunctional. We are social animals, and the pandemic has made us more aware of this reality. Even nomadic peoples converge periodically, to exchange news, trade goods (and genes!) celebrate or engage in spiritual rituals.
Certain human activities have evolved that are conducted more easily when people are clustered together rather than dispersed. Villages, towns and cities evolved and grew to fulfil human needs for centres of connexity. The great cities have always been the richest centres of connexity because they are densest – in population, diversity, complexity, races, cultures, and wealth. This is one reason cities have absorbed invasions and outlived many and diverse systems of government.
Cities are also complicated organisms with lives of their own – many-layered and culturally specific.
They evolved in response to the surrounding environment and the unwritten, sensed needs and values of the communities which built them and were in turn shaped by them. Until recently, there was an intimate correspondence between the architecture of a city and the lives of its people.
Do not isolate architectural thinking from the urban or the natural world.
Each building is of itself but also of the city. It is part of a composition expressing a culture’s togetherness, or opposite: its isolationist or selfish character.
Architecture creates urban environments which mirror the philosophy on which a culture is based. What is today’s philosophy? Does neoliberalism rule, and with it the ubiquitous high-rise skyline?
We have to understand and react positively to the pandemic’s impact, and reassert human and humane values, and think and act consciously to support the biosphere and this beautiful planet.
Do not overlook that design is a biological process.
Good planning, and building plans are adaptable to change. We change, even our DNA changes during our lifetime. Architecture and cities are no different.
Ian Ritchie leads one of the world’s most thoughtful, original and influential contemporary collaborative architectural practices which has received over 100 national and international awards.
Ian is a Royal Academician and elected member of the Akademie der Künste. He is Honorary Visiting Professor of Architecture Liverpool University; Member of Politecnico di Milano’s Architecture, Urbanism and Construction Engineering Academic Board, Fellow of the Society of Façade Engineering; Emeritus Commissioner CABE and advises Backstage Trust.
Recently he was advisor to The Ove Arup Foundation, the Director of the Centre for Urban Science and Progress NYU, and to the President of Columbia University on the Manhattanville masterplan.
He has chaired many international juries including RIBA Stirling Prize, the RIAS Doolan Award, Berlin Art Prize, Czech Architecture Grand Prix Jury and the French government’s ‘Nouveaux Jeunes Albums’.
He was a founder director of Rice Francis Ritchie, a design engineering practice based in Paris. He continues to lecture globally, has written several books, including poetry, and his art is held in several international galleries and museums.
Architecture provides a physical reference to our cultural past and, at the point of conception, both expresses and gives us confidence to imagine a better future. Beyond utility and aesthetics, built architecture has a metaphysical role – it shapes the emotions and behaviours of those who will live with it. A metaphysical inquiry into the nature of space, structure and light is essential to envisage architecture that will lift the human spirit. When the elements of this trinity are in harmony, a tangible sense of wholeness and serenity imbues an architecture that is able to touch the mind through the observer’s senses. Architecture makes the existential tangible, and our sense of place is both a response to our physical environment and a cultural creation.