Shared living spaces looked like being the future of metropolitan living and working, and now they seem like human petri-dishes. So, what comes next?
April 1st, 2020
Pity every architecture student of the last five years or so. They’ve come out into the world ready to use the most up to date theories about urban planning and design for the domiciles and offices of then future based around the Google-forward idea that we’d all be participating and collaborating and interacting together in our common areas and shared spaces.
And then COVID-19 popped by and wow, that idea got real old real quick, huh?
To be fair, a lot of co-working spaces were already under pressure because the sorts of people who used them – like freelance writers for example, hi, what a colourful time to be alive! – didn’t have the sort of reliable income necessary to make the kinds of long term bookings that make businesses viable. And WeWork’s collapse in the US pre-dated the current situation not because of pandemics but because their entire economic model was an insane fantasy built on sand and misplaced entrepreneur-worship.
Similarly, the attempt to make Americans fall in love with the WeLive group home model didn’t really take off, in part because of the WeWork debacle and mainly because its suite of semi-compulsory fun shared activities seemed less like a cool way to bond as a community-by-choice and more like the early stages of a cult.
But the general idea – that cities were going to get more and more crowded and expensive and that creative ways to maximise the space available are required to avoid the planet becoming one sprawling Star Wars’ Coruscant-style global urbscape – seemed a good one. And the idea was starting to really take off in Europe where people understood the notion of common space and also have historically been pretty OK with strangers seeing their junk.
The increasingly impossible Australian ideal of the stand-alone house on a quarter acre block seemed not just impractical but downright quaint, right up until January when everyone had to abruptly convert their homes into disease-proof biodomes.
And it’s hard enough to suddenly retrofit one’s pad to become a multi-function polis where one can work, sleep, eat, exercise, store toilet paper, cope with crippling loneliness and/or hold a family together with zero downtime, and drink sullenly while staring at the outside world which once seemed so welcoming and now is just a series of surfaces crawling with death-virus.
So co-living now seems like an idea which missed its window. How is it possible to safely self-isolate if you’re also sharing food preparation, washing and entertainment areas with a bunch of other people? And how long would it be before someone in the building declared themselves the emergency head of the new independent state of your apartment block and commenced designing a new internal currency and starting plans to violently annexe the building next door?
This is the challenge which awaits those embarking on a future in architecture and design. And academics, get ready for a lot of PhD submissions where every single object is thickly coated in anti-viral copper.
And all the pressures which were pressing us toward a more shared living and working ecosystem still exist. If anything, they’re going to be even stronger as the economics of our global covidepression bite even more acutely, and as climate change – remember that? – requires our domestic footprint to be ever-smaller.
We need smaller places with more shared space, and simultaneously we also need places we can bunker down in long-term for the next time some global pandemic escapes the melting permafrost.
But the memories of self-isolating and going stir crazy in our individual homes is going to stay fresh for an entire generation who are going to have our collective current experience colouring their future ideas of what a city might look like.
So, the question for our next gen architects will be “how can you live in a place with great use of common space shared facilities which can also be isolated and locked down for individual use when the medical need arises?”
For what it’s worth, my answer is individual pods as per Spinal Tap. But hopefully there’s someone out there with a better solution. Enjoy this crisatunity!
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