Imagine going to a restaurant and eating at a table while cocooned in a wraparound Plexiglas cone suspended from the ceiling.
Or visiting a park where people stroll down their own “lanes” separated by hedges.
Or working in an office building where arrows direct employees to walk only in a clockwise direction.
All around the world, designers and architects are reimagining homes, offices and shared spaces to adapt to COVID-19 realities.
The reaction has been mixed, with critics panning some of the pandemic-inspired concepts for being too outlandish or impractical — nothing more than visual click bait to boost a design firm’s social media followers.
“I think a lot of the stuff that has been coming out recently — not too much has been really strong in terms of ideas that have longevity,” said Erick Villagomez, principal of Metis Design Build, a Vancouver urban design consulting firm.
“Designers are just throwing a bunch of random stuff out there.”
Since the coronavirus outbreak, many high-traffic places have had to undergo rapid — and sometimes crude — modifications. Grocery stores have installed Plexiglas at the checkout counter and placed strips of duct tape on floors to direct the flow of shoppers.
This week, Toronto city staff painted white circles on the grass at Trinity Bellwoods Park to ensure visitors maintain a two-metre separation — something that didn’t happen during the a recent weekend when thousands crowded into the park.
Cities across the country are debating the widening of sidewalks and “reclaiming” curb lanes to create more space for pedestrians and cyclists.
Meanwhile, designers have been flooding social media with eye-popping designs that push the envelope of creativity and imagination.
One design getting a lot of buzz in recent days is aimed at wooing people back to restaurants.
French designer Christophe Gernigon has designed a Plexiglas shield that resembles a giant lampshade or cone. It hangs from the ceiling and hovers over a person while they eat. He’s also designing larger shields that can envelope couples or families.
“When I saw proposals to place Plexiglas dividers on restaurant tables, it gave me the impression of being in a prison visiting room. I told myself that I had to imagine a more beautiful, attractive, poetic, elegant object that offers a unique experience,” Gernigon says in promotional materials for his “elegantly curved” Plex’Eat plastic pods.
Gernigon said through a spokesperson he hopes the shields can help save restaurants “in this hard economic period.”
One of the first restaurants to give the shields a trial run is H.A.N.D, a casual eatery near the Louvre in Paris. Owner Mathieu Manzoni told The Associated Press this week the suspended pods are a “pretty” solution for restaurateurs who worry social distancing could cut their capacity in half.
But Kate Wagner, an architecture critic behind the popular blog McMansion Hell, recently published a column that lumped the Plexiglas shields in with other recent design solutions that are “dreamed up from scratch to look good on Instagram feeds or, more simply, for clicks.”
She accused many design firms of engaging in what she called “Coronagrifting.”
Villagomez said he agrees with the thrust of Wagner’s column. Too many pandemic designs are all about flash and don’t really take into account government regulations or the economics of following through with the glittery proposals, he said.
“Generating ideas is fantastic and I think we need a lot of them — fanciful and all. I just think this should be balanced with highlighting the less-flashy but meaningful bottom-up solutions that are happening.”
Sara Jensen Carr, a professor of architecture, urbanism and landscape at Northeastern University, agrees. She said she would much prefer if design experts devoted their attention to addressing systemic issues, such as creating clean and safe public transit, equitable and healthy housing and better ventilation systems.
She pointed to a recent design project that was small but had big impact — the installation of environmentally friendly handwashing stations for homeless people in Seattle. The project, designed by local architects and the University of Washington, connects a sink to a hose on public or private property. The water drains into a trough filled with soil and plants.
“I think sanitation in the public realm will become more important and is something that hasn’t been addressed enough,” Carr said.
But those behind some of the sleeker pandemic designs say the criticism isn’t fair.
Antonio Lanzillo, an Italian designer whose firm created a collection of concrete and metal public benches outfitted with Plexiglas dividers or “shields,” acknowledged that some in the industry have been accused of “exploiting” the pandemic, but he insists all they’re doing is trying to propose solutions.
“We must in light of what has happened … start having an alternative vision of our life with possible and inevitable changes compared to our established habits,” he wrote in an email.
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Austrian-based designer Chris Precht recently unveiled his concept for a mazelike park that allows visitors to maintain physical distance as they walk along one of several parallel granite-gravel paths that spiral toward the centre in a manner that resembles a thumbprint. The paths are separated by hedges that vary in height.
“Although people are visually separated most of the time, they might hear footsteps on the pebbles from the neighbouring paths,” Precht’s studio says in its promotional materials.
“Sometimes visitors are fully immersed by nature, other times they emerge over the hedge and can see across the garden.”
Once the pandemic is over, Precht says the park’s design — inspired by French baroque and Japanese Zen gardens — could serve as an urban oasis, a place for temporary solitude.
“I think this pandemic has taught us that we need more places to get away. City centres should not be defined by their real estate, but rather by their real escape.”
Hua Hua Architects in the Czech Republic, meanwhile, has released a blueprint for transforming outdoor plazas or abandoned streets into “Gastro Safe Zones” — socially distanced, al fresco dining experiences. Customers order from the window of a restaurant or café, then take their food to small outdoor dining tables that can be easily disinfected and are on brightly coloured spacing grids.
“The main goal was to bring gastronomic establishments back to life,” Petr Kadlec, a collaborator on the project, said via email. “They were impacted the most by the lock down.”
Anticipating that companies will start sending at least some of their employees back to the office, commercial real estate company Cushman & Wakefield has developed a road map for its clients in the form of the “6 Feet Office.”
The guidelines recommend putting arrows on the floor to ensure people move only in a clockwise direction. Desks are spaced apart and visual cues in the form of large circles embedded in the carpet around each desk remind people to maintain distance. To reduce the spread of the virus, employees work on paper placemats that can be discarded at the end of the day.
Researchers are also developing technologies to prevent the spread of infection on common contact surfaces. An engineering team at the University of Windsor, for instance, has designed a contraption that allows people to open doors without using their hands. The “j-hook” attaches to different styles of door handles and allows people to use their forearms to open doors.
“We have been working on coming up with these solutions, as there may be additional COVID-19 waves, and anything we can do to minimize virus transmission needs to be considered,” said Jill Urbanic, the professor overseeing the team.
“We are transitioning from testing to real-world settings.”
With growing numbers of people expected to remain working at home, designers are also putting thought into what homes of the future might look like. Some say there could be a move away from open-concept floor plans to accommodate the need for things like acoustically separate offices.
For many during this pandemic, home has become a daycare, a workplace and a place of sanctuary, said Marc Boutin, who runs a Calgary design firm and is a professor at the University of Calgary’s school of architecture, planning and landscape.
“It’s forced people to be way more innovative,” he said. “Houses didn’t get bigger, they just functioned more robustly.”
Boutin says one way to achieve this flexibility is through the use of sliding walls or panels that can transform open spaces in a home into more private ones.
“The long-term impact could be an emerging culture of demanding more from a space, including a work space that comes in and out of focus,” he said.
Of course, how much of the COVID-19 crisis ends up being codified in our designs will depend largely on how long it takes to develop a vaccine.
If there isn’t one for a while, designers will be faced with the conundrum of what to do about large venues, such as movie theatres and stadiums, that traditionally seat people shoulder-to-shoulder.
Villagomez says he was bantering with his brother recently about what a sports arena could look like without any spectators.
“We were blue-skying around the possibility of a digital audience — wrapping the sports arena itself in a projectable screen where viewers from around the world are broadcast live from their homes in giant tiles in full audio. The tiles would be constantly scrolling through hundreds of windows of viewers,” he said.
“This would, at least, allow players some semblance of the audio and visual feedback so important to the atmosphere (and play) of professional sport and allow hometown fans of each team to play a part in each game.”
Villagomez acknowledged it’s a pie-in-the-sky idea, perhaps even one that falls into the category of “Coronagrifting.”
But who knows? If fans and players take a liking to it, this and other moon shot design ideas could move beyond the realm of click bait and into reality.
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