When the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the coronavirus pandemic, the President of the International Union of Architects (UIA) US citizen Thomas Vonier was in the eye of the hurricane, in Seoul, South Korea – one of the countries that was most severely affected at the start of this crisis. In this exclusive interview, he talks about the UIA COVID-19 Information Hub initiative, recalling the roles played by architects in other humanitarian crises. He also comments on possible changes looming over the work of architects, and describes how the South Koreans acted rapidly to contain COVID-19. Is this the first time that the UIA has carried out a survey of architectural projects related to a critical situation, in order to compile them in an organized manner?
What led the UIA to take this initiative? Many UIA Commissions and Work Programmes gather examples of excellent building projects from all over the world. Our "Commission on Sustainable Development Goals," for example, has assembled and published dozens of outstanding designs and projects from many geographic locales, representing great environmental solutions for a range of climatic and economic conditions. Our Work Programme on “Architecture and Children” gives awards for outstanding educational efforts gathered from many different countries.
The UIA has always been a platform for gathering and sharing exemplary works, but we have never faced a pandemic crisis of this character or magnitude. Propagation of this novel coronavirus is very closely related to physical interactions among humans in confined spaces, which is very much the domain of architectural design. A valuable aspect of the UIA is its international reach, and our members are determined to share knowledge and experience to improve the human condition. It was natural for the UIA to launch a global information-sharing hub on critical facility issues for this pandemic, headed by Kevin Bingham, an architect from South Africa with experience in planning and adapting facilities for critical public health needs.
Have we had architects highlighted in humanitarian crises in recent years, such as the tsunami in the Pacific, refugee camps in Europe, the Syrian War or other events? Could you name a few cases?
Many of the humanitarian issues in the world today stem from political and
economic conflicts, which are often rooted in national, ethnic and religious
prejudices and rivalries. At their core, these crises have little to do with architecture.
But the ingenuity of architects — and their nearly universal determination to help — have produced ingenious emergency shelters and remarkable ways to provide potable water and basic sanitation in refugee camps and informal settlements. Also, we have come to realise that responsible architecture and urban design can help to remediate poisoned environments and ameliorate extreme climate conditions, which
often lead to conflicts over resources and undermine sound public health.
Many UIA member countries have faced catastrophes, both natural and human. This includes, of course, the Tsunami that struck Japan in 2011, just before the UIA Tokyo World Congress, which has helped to generate a new generation of guidelines for building in areas prone to flooding and extreme weather.
Does UIA already have news of other projects, such as CURA (Carlo Ratti and Italo Rota), being developed specifically for this Covid-19 pandemic?
Examples of extraordinary ingenuity are coming to the UIA from all corners of the globe. They range from schemes for low-technology, self-built testing booths that isolate medical personnel from test subjects, to high-technology adaptations of large spaces, such as convention centers and churches, to isolated intensive care hospital stations. We have also heard about emergency large-scale temporary quarantine stations, and we hope to have many physical examples of approaches that are fast, effective and economical. Architects should check in with the UIA COVID-19 Information Hub: www.uia-architectes.org — both to contribute examples
and to take examples away!
Do you believe that the global impact of this pandemic already signals some change in the way in which Architecture and Urbanism is carried out until now? In what way? Please develop this theme. Architects and pundits all over the world are speculating on such questions right now. We are still in the coping phase, and that will endure for months to come. When the World Health Organisation declared this a global pandemic, I was in Seoul on business, and then travelled by train to central Korea. During that travel, I had indoor encounters with maybe 300 people, and shared public spaces with thousands more. The experience showed me how public infrastructure can support communities coping with major health crises.
To begin with, hand-washing stations and hand sanitizer dispensers were
everywhere — in train and bus stations, parks and other outdoor locations, in stores and public buildings. Everywhere you looked, notices showed the “correct” ways to sneeze, cough, and wash hands. Illustrated instructions—some designed expressly for children—were on posters, handouts, newspapers, and billboards. They were repeated in public announcements and video spots. In short, with just about every step you took, you saw urgent responses to a serious public health emergency.
It was impressive to see almost all Koreans—in both semi-private and public spaces—displaying high levels of discipline. Masks were in abundant supply and worn almost everywhere. They may have limited effectiveness in protecting against coronavirus infection, but masks are still a visible signal of awareness, concern and discipline. Handshaking among friends, colleagues and new acquaintances was almost completely suspended, weeks before the declaration of a global pandemic.
My experience in Korea suggested that public security during a pandemic comes via good example, along with relentless repetition of factual and simple messages, and rigorous social reinforcement. It all begins at the front lines, in buildings and public spaces. You could not get away from the message that we are in an urgent health crisis, and everyone around you was getting the same message. The social pressure to wear masks and to keep distance was palpable.
In Europe and North America, you now see visible manifestations of physical distancing guidelines—strips of tape on floors to mark distancing intervals at entrances and check-out lines. Today there are strict entry controls in stores and buildings that, two months ago, were wide open. These measures will not go away any time soon. But today, who can really know for sure what lies on the other side of this crisis, or even when “the end” will come?
Inevitably, our buildings and public spaces will reflect the unease many people will feel about being near other people for a long time to come. How soon can you imagine agreeing to sit at a restaurant within inches of a neighboring table? When will you be ready to stand in a line, or sit in a train or bus, with your body nearly touching the stranger next to you? We may have to do these things, but we will probably try to avoid them — and this will affect how we design and manage space.
Would you like to say something or send a message to architects around the world at this moment so critical to the world?
From its very first day, the UIA has been the profession’s international force, propelling architects to work in nonpartisan allegiance toward a world made better by design. That is exactly what we need today—first, to help the world fight the deadly pandemic that now grips it, and then to help communities recover and rebuild, applying lessons that will help to avoid future health and environmental catastrophes. The UIA will continue to be a leading force for good, by sharing the best guidance available on building and repurposing facilities for emergency medical use. Today, just as when architects created the UIA seventy-two years ago, we will unite in service to society, bringing global perspective and vision. As the profession’s international organisation, it is our role to highlight relevant research,
promote information sharing and advocate for sound policies.