Corona times are not only to cure the sick, but to question the self as well. Expectedly, people may ask - how will the construction sector respond to a world in future when pandemics will be a part of our lives? How can our buildings, cities and living environment be better prepared for the next generation?
The writing on the wall is clear. We are seeking change. Time to listen to Lao Tzu who said “If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading”. Very true, but unless we know where to head, can we change directions?
Architecture, as socio-political manifestation and economic expression of our times, will reflect upon and respond to the future world. But would there be a discernible shift, like the kind affected by major causes of the past – invention of steel and cement, structural innovations, design options, new materiality, effective technologies for HVAC, newer software or iconic visions?
Optimistically speaking, we should change the course of our designs and construction, yet one does not see any paradigm shift right now, barring a few insignificant talks about space use and material changes. The society at large is still discussing health matters, with minimal impacts on the design criteria of most building types.
Change-makers for the future
Besides being a societal phenomenon, architecture is also a creative and collaborative outcome of a professional group of people called architects, engineers and builders. Will they shape the new post-pandemic construction, into a sustainable pandemic-free future? Arguably no, with the exception of a small number of thinking professionals. The majority of Indian consultants practise within the imperatives of market economy, unfair competitions and the pressures of earning. The plight of builders, including everybody from developers to workers, is still worse.
This could be a debatable argument, for we are surely capable of improving upon our present crisis, but the question is would we walk that path. Very few architects, engineers and builders are powerful enough to step out of their insular practices, to convince owners, promoters and the government to spread their new post-corona wisdoms. Anyway, let us hope they will do so.
Even as we panic, there are suggestions that pandemics with or without lockdowns will be omnipresent forever, so we need to plan our future constructions accordingly. If we study only the past in retrospect, our proposals for future may fail, not because our prescriptions were impractical, but because the future pandemics may be different. Cholera could be controlled by clean water, polio by vaccine drops, corona by social distancing and the future unknown germ will have its own cure, unknown to us as of now. Of course, this does not mean proposing for future built environment will be futile, only it could be limited in application.
Equally well, the danger of our well-intended ideas for future being appropriated, co-opted and subverted by negative socio-politico-personal agendas, be at local or at national levels, always lurks behind. It’s unfortunate that the majority of our ideas towards urban equality, eco sustainability, social justice, heritage conservation, ecological balance and such others get shot down due to many such causes, despite having thousands of rules and systems.
Given this, building upon a better and safer settlements of future needs to go beyond the current crisis rooted only in COVID-19. The wisdom dawning from the past and present together, may enable us to face the future.
The Internet is already getting overloaded with post-corona predictions, more on health but also on architecture and environment with multiple directions being addressed. Let us anyway take a fresh look, not so much on ‘how will’ construction respond, but on ‘how should’ it respond. If corona has made us live a life that was the norm 50 years ago - without or with minimal AC, flights, supermarkets, driving holidays, hotels, minimal manufacturing and many such others – can architecture also do so?
The AC has been among the major carriers of germs, so let us try living without or minimal air conditioning. Re-look at the way masters of Indian architecture designed early on, be it Correa, Kanvinde, Doshi or Baker, they all designed without AC. It’s actually simple to have an eco-friendly building design considering heat, light, air, rain, humidity, glare, sound and space. These 8 eco design sutras will ensure healthier, germ-free spaces to live, learn and work.
Multi-functionality and adaptive reuse have been among the genius loci of Indian architecture and settlements. There can be thousands of examples from a courtyard house on the eve of a family wedding to the extreme demands of Shivarathri on Varanasi ghats. Modern architecture and town planning have diverted us from these time-tested approaches. May be it is time we re-approach them.
Most of our cities have no proper plans, towns with plans have no neighbourhoods, the few neighbourhoods we can claim have no community spaces and the few community spaces we can identify have no urban design. Yet, town planning and urban design are studied in every school of architecture, besides many taking them up for higher studies. Hundreds of Indian firms claim capacity to be consultants in urban matters.
Given this expertise, every Indian settlement can be re-designed or redeveloped for better living as a future pandemic-ready city. To that end, the 74th amendment to the Constitution, mainly the idea of decentralised governance with powers to urban local bodies and ward committees, may have to be implemented.
Natural materials such as mud, brick, wood, stones, bamboo and such others are not known to be germ friendly, unlike the factory made products for construction, besides being low on embodied energy, chemicals or waste production. So, simply minimise manufactured materials and research on natural materials towards greater efficiency and on site execution. .
Arresting pandemics will be easier in smaller spaces, so we need to build every building small. As a generation, we are building too much for the Earth to feed with materials and support with services. Reducing the quantum of construction may hit the industry economically, but will restore ecology and save humanity from future crises.
Large sprawling spaces with great indoor volumes such as modern airports, prestigious hotels, corporate offices, hospitals with lavish interiors and luxurious corporate offices are nothing but a sheer waste of Earth’s resources. Besides the humongous costs both in capital and operating expenses, keeping them hygienic is a challenge. Shorter spans with multiple courtyards and staggered balconies may serve many building types, with more such design ideas can be explored.
People are already leading fairly individualised living due to gadgets such as laptop, smart phone, and many others. Pandemics may force us towards greater indoor isolation. Internet-enabled information, communication and entertainment would mean we live cocooned within our houses. It is too early even to hazard a guess how it will impact on architecture of the future. However, such scenarios do not sound too well for a healthy society and humanity at large.
Corona has been an extraordinary problem, demanding an extraordinary solution. Not to blame it, for it is caused by all of us, who wish to live an extraordinary life, stimulated by modern times, glitzy world of architecture, iconic apartment elevations, exclusive land development, scintillating media coverage, exciting social image, egoistic individual identity and an enviable bio data.
Philosophically, if only we could live ordinary, frugal, simple and humble, thousands of problems of pandemics and such others can be resolved, if not fully eliminated. Can architecture of the ordinary emerge as an acceptable solution to the future? Is construction for conservation possible? Can health and aesthetics be part of our urban expansions? Can city development mean social development?
Yes, if we have the will.
(The author is an architect working on eco-friendly designs and can be contacted at email@example.com)
(This text is based on “Post-Pandemic Architecture’’ by the author, which won the first prize in a national essay competition hosted by Indian Institute of Architects during June, 2020).