This article appears on CityMetric courtesy of Blueprint magazine.
This year, we entered what I was seeing as a decade of action. Along with much of the rest of the world, architecture and design as a discipline would come together to address some of the most pressing concerns of our time. We would take collective action in response to the climate emergency armed with science, data, and other tools to tackle and advance resiliency, adaptation, and sustainable practices in the built environment. We would catalyze a shift in dispositions rooted in consumption and growth by prioritizing the circular economy, the Green New Deal, affordability, and equity.
What we did not know is that as early as January we were watching the formation of the Covid-19 pandemic, a crisis that would claim hundreds of thousands of lives (a growing figure) and lay bare a number of critical gaps in our global systems. Breakdowns in these systems have required urgent responses at every level of government and leadership. International travel, exchanges, and supply chains that underlay the global economy and related socio-economic structures went from hard truths to open questions. And much of the globally coordinated action that might have been dedicated to problems with a 10-year timeline was channeled into the current crisis that appears to have immediately compressed response times to weeks or days wherever it has landed.
The near collapse and various kinds of safety netting thrown under the global economy has not only revealed its vulnerability and our personal dependencies, but also our interconnectedness. As we see the virus continue to spread across the United States, I do not have a perfect analogy to describe the series of actions connecting so many different people with so many different needs, but I can speak to its power fairly clearly having witnessed an interconnected and expanded form of mutual aid.
In the emergency medical services profession (as well as in activist circles) the mutual aid agreement is a common understanding that in moments of crisis the jurisdictional boundaries between practitioners, each with distinct expertise and knowledge, dissolve. The medical profession as whole unites around a common problem to work quickly to address urgent conditions and effectively manage contingency. Everyone comes together with their resources – materials, skill, time, and effort – to help in whatever way they can.
The Covid-19 crisis has placed enormous pressure, to a degree that much of the world has never seen, on the health care industry and its workers. Despite preparedness and selfless response efforts in hospitals and other health care centers, the crisis not only overwhelmed the system but also created a direct threat to the lives of both providers and the sick. Under the current conditions, the call for mutual aid is extended well beyond the health care industry. The industry cannot handle this crisis on its own. The crisis requires spatial and social practices to work in tandem with health care measures. Our situation demands the mobilization of resources and quick action from a broad range of perhaps unlikely disciplines to meet urgent needs by any means possible.
What we have learned from design practice and applied research is that with the most pressing issues, we often work best in collaboration with other disciplines that inform our work, and with new tools and new perspectives, be they from science, engineering, or the arts. Whether we could anticipate the many Covid-related needs that emerged quickly and urgently, I have recently found that as architects and designers we are primed for working together across boundaries toward a mutual benefit – and, that this brings me a bit of optimism in these difficult times. Our willingness to act has opened many of our eyes and minds to what we as designers and global citizens have to offer.
To share a few examples, though there are many more – there are designers at work on problems that are material and require pragmatic action, and simultaneously, those who are analyzing and calling out inequity as the virus affects those who face discrimination and have less access to care than others.
Operation PPE was sparked by a call from medical professionals at Weill Medical to faculty at Cornell University's College of Engineering, who then connected with Professor Jenny Sabin, director of the Matter Design Computation program at Cornell, who rebooted the recently vacated fabrication labs at AAP to produce 3D-printed personal protection equipment. Many of our alumni and students joined in producing PPE from an open source design file and designers utilized and modified as needed.
J. Meejin Yoon is dean of the College of Architecture, Art and Planning at Cornell University. (Andy Ryan)
At the Harvard Wyss Institute and the Graduate School of Design, students, researchers, and faculty responded to an urgent need for personal isolation hoods that would keep patients and doctors at Massachusetts General Hospital safer as they fight the virus in infection wards and operating rooms. By coordinating ideas and action via a Slack channel, collaborators across the design and health disciplines initiated a completely horizontal creative process so that the strongest designs could be modified and added to in real time and advance to clinical testing and production in a matter of not months, but weeks.
Kimberly Dowdell, Chicago-based architect and president of the National Organization of Minority Architects recently responded to figures citing the tragically disproportionate number of Covid-19 deaths among black and Latino people in New York City and Chicago. Dowdell highlights how all of our communities, particularly those still affected by discriminatory policies in our cities, now suffer greater challenges and losses in the face of this crisis.
There are other data and design ideas emerging that may impact the future of how a crisis of such magnitude might be handled.
In the past several weeks, designers and architects have assumed the agency and responsibility we share to engage new problems and offer meaningful service to a cause that asks us to reach far beyond disciplinary lines. We acted quickly and were able to do so by seeing past ourselves and our claims to authorship, by working across professional boundaries, and providing crucial help where needed. Many of us already have an eye on the long term and are asking important questions that I wonder if – despite the holding pattern between worry and hope most of us share – we can better understand in terms of what it will take to come together around a mutually beneficial plan for recovery, and for the future. A future where we enact our interconnectedness not as a shared vulnerability, but a strength – extending the practice of mutual aid beyond the medical profession to coordinate action and contributions to shared problems in a shared world where design and planning have critical agency.
J. Meejin Yoon is the Gale and Ira Druckier Dean of the College of Architecture, Art and Planning at Cornell University.