A Brave New World: Modest and Pragmatic – David Ross

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What will the cities of the future be like? It’s an intriguing question and one which – of all the professionals involved in the creation of our built environment – architects are best placed to respond to. Imagining the future is a pastime which all designers indulge in. It is usually supported by other media which has considered the issue for its own ends. Films such as Metropolis, Blade Runner, The Fifth Element or Brazil are traditionally favourites of many architects because of a vivid depiction of a type of future-city which technological advances underpin. As visually interesting and provocative as they are though, the urban cityscapes in such films invariably utilise a utopian vision of mankind’s future as an additional character to propel the plot. As such the focus is often on how technology is likely to triumph over basic aspects of reality such as gravity or the natural rhythm of the seasons.

But there are currently more straightforward explanations for the architect’s interest in the future. As students we were encouraged to understand how things have been and to analyse how they are now, to explore how they might be. This is the essence of design process, but it also recognises that architecture has been a relatively slow-moving art which must be in tune with socio-economic developments and cultural nuances for its perpetual redrafting of our desired environment. This being the case, and in an acknowledgement of a view that people make places and not the other way around, any assessments of the future have usually started with the individual and how lifestyles may need to adapt to the premonitory signs and resultant pragmatic trends that are becoming more prevalent.

The global Covid-19 pandemic has turned much of our traditional analytical approaches and market-trend touchstones upside down. Where the commerce of collaboration and connection once drove the type of spaces we wanted to be in, fear of contamination now controls them. Previously buoyant sectors – hospitality, workplace, student residencies, transportation – are facing hugely complex challenges as an unsurprising consequence. Where modernism drove the desire for open, airy, functional emptiness, the requirements of quarantine are primarily defensive and cellular.

There is an unusual paradox in all of this: ‘Stay At Home, Stay Safe’ suggests wide-open spaces are to be avoided, yet it’s undoubtedly safer to be outside – still appropriately distanced from others – in a natural environment, than indoors in a man-made one. The psychological impact of the first six months of 2020 is likely to be long-lasting. When faced with working from home, the perception of personal safety that will have offered for those able to do so will take a long time to break down. The fear will eventually dissipate. We are species that craves contact with others; to be creative, to be stimulated, to love, to laugh, to celebrate, to grieve, to protest, and, yes, sometimes to fight. All are essential and necessary means of human expression. An environment in which these things can return as before is a universally shared ambition, even if currently difficult to imagine. However, architects are – sometimes, to a fault – optimistic dreamers. As a profession we evaluate problems in the wide context where we find them and explore solutions that overcome not only those known problems, but anticipated ones that may emerge out of new phenomena.  

The clues to assist the search for a future lifestyle are evident in the changing climatic conditions worldwide. The way we receive information and communicate with each other are obvious examples of the rapid pace of change. The socially inclusive rules of our society have become attitudes and values by which organisations are now measured. On a more localised level, they can also be found in the developing components of how our lives are slowly changing. In the way we learn, in the way we work, in the way we shop, in the various ways in which we relax and in the ways in which we are treated if we are ill. None of these human needs or desires will diminish as a result of a pandemic; we will merely find different ways of achieving them.

It should be argued that the dramatic change in our climate remains the predominant phenomena of our era. Regular catastrophic flooding from rising water levels is being experienced everywhere from Australia to Brazil, from South West Asia to South West England. These occurrences are not happening once in every two hundred years anymore. With the human capacity for adaptation to changing circumstances, perhaps far less of our new buildings in high risk areas will contain basements and more will be constructed on stilts?  

Less obvious effects of the need for a more ecologically sustainable future could see the emphasis on transportation infrastructure reduced. Covid-19 has forced us to be more local, less regional and far less global in our physical movements. If technology can allow people to work globally but without the direct need for travel, then it might be argued that a better work/life balance will be the future aspirational incentive for this, as opposed to the current perception of it being forcibly applied.

More time spent productively and with family, versus increasing time spent log-jammed on the country’s overstretched motorways? Less overhead costs for those organisations fortunate enough to have the choice. Consequently, new estates comprised of multitudes of small pitched-roof shoeboxes and very little else, aimed at the travel-orientated nuclear family, might also gradually disappear under these circumstances.

A necessary increase in convenience purchasing via the internet will eventually influence the type of retail establishments that are required. They might get smaller becoming more general, more independent and more community-orientated. Our patterns of relaxation are also certain to change, with leisure pursuits becoming more locally focused as our new communities attempt to become more self-sufficient. Localised energy budgeting, generation, consumption and measurement suggests less nationalisation of employment. Extending this argument to wider community services begins to point to models of Scandinavian living in the form of examples such as Hammarsby in Sweden. It would be difficult to argue that the standard of living and the resultant reduced levels of crime experienced by that community do not have some universal attraction.

As our Learning aspirations also change and we seek safe educational establishments which can contribute more to the communities they are a central part of, these buildings also need to respond to the challenges of social interaction. Smaller classrooms, especially for younger children, have long been an educational aspiration but a difficult political target. Covid-19 responses are likely to be prioritised towards the adaptation of existing facilities to achieve precisely that. Long-term vocational need rather than being predominantly focused on the demonstration of acquired knowledge through an antiquated examination process may yet be an unexpected beneficial outcome.

Similarly, if logic tells us that people will spend less time in hospital in future as fully invasive procedures become less reliant on long-term observed recovery, the drive towards community-based Health & Wellbeing will surely become more desirable. Who will spend time recuperating in general hospital beds if complex cardiac and neurological treatment can be given laparoscopically, where the surgeon and his team might not even be in the same room as the patient? Especially if that recuperation can be proven to be more effective when centred on the patient’s natural desire to be at home. Should the future of retained urban healthcare estates therefore lie in their regenerative transformation into care villages providing us with safe, protected accommodation as we live longer past retirement?

With an economic downturn looming, many in public sector organisations will be faced with retention, maintenance and refurbishment of older buildings in a retained estate where previously the imperative to demolish and redevelop might have been less complex. I suspect most architects might welcome this shift in emphasis as breathing new life into old buildings and working within the constraints of an existing established fabric can often be more rewarding.

In the contradiction between the momentum of global developments and the wish for personal stability, safety and a comfort in the ‘known’, the aesthetic of the past also seems to promise an obvious way out of the dilemmas of the present. That is why sustainability in architecture is so closely associated with the way things have always been. After all, if such problems as environmental pollution, resource shortages and alienation from other people didn’t exist before, why can’t we simply go back to ‘the good old days’?

The drive towards the future contains an ironic dilemma. How can we develop new and ‘innovative’ responses to design problems when the predominant phenomena of our age suggest that we look backward to a time when local materials were utilised in a sensible and natural manner, when mass was the major consideration in the conservation of energy, and patrons’ expectations of budget were perhaps more attuned to their aspirations? Perhaps the answer lies in that often-used cliché: adaptability. If a large exhibition complex like the SEC in Glasgow can adapt to become the fully functioning NHS Louisa Jordan in just 23 days, and if our bedrooms and dining rooms can adapt to become spaces where we can productively and efficiently work, then our cities can also adapt to reclaim the streets and squares of ‘outside space’ for people. There’s an old saying: ‘only architects and prostitutes continually look upwards’. But now everyone’s at it. With time and space and little else to do other than walk through our empty towns and city centres, many are discovering views, glimpses, vennels and dramatic skylines, reconnecting with a local environment that they had previously taken for granted. It isn’t only Paul Simon seeing angels in the architecture anymore.

If our lifestyles are developing in a way where either through personal choice, technological development or moral/social exigent, a more community-orientated environment where people live, love, work and play in smaller, more self-supporting contexts which have diversity, hierarchy and character due to an appropriately considered mix of the old, the new, the ordinary and the special … then perhaps the future will resemble the past more than many of us might have been led to expect.

David Ross is an architect and writer. He is a director of Keppie Design www.keppiedesign.co.uk
Photo by Alan McCredi
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