Arts·Point of View

COVID has exposed the problems with how we design our cities — but we have the chance to do better

Urban living wasn't designed for pandemic conditions. How will this moment shape the future of architecture?

Urban living wasn't designed for pandemic conditions. How will this moment shape the future of architecture?

Construction at Bathurst St. and Lake Shore Blvd. (Nicolas Barrette)

The pandemic has put a spotlight on how we live and the role of the architecture around us. This story is part of a CBC Arts: Exhibitionists episode focused on architecture and design, streaming now on CBC Gem.

Over the course of the pandemic, I have been fortunate to split my time between two living spaces: a condo on the foot of Lake Ontario and an apartment 15 blocks north. The latter is an attic of an Edwardian duplex replete with plaster walls, centenarian floorboards and an infinite yet unknown source of dust. The other is my partner's condo, built less than a decade ago, abundantly modern and convenient. The kitchen has a "Crema Bordeaux" granite countertop and stainless steel appliances that remain faithful to the original marketing rendering.

Both floor plans have been forged by social, cultural and economic trends of their time. One structure is dressed in glass, concrete and steel, the other in brick, lime and wood; one, a stolid rectangular plan, and the other a corner unit squeezed into the shape of a trapezoid. Both are containers for the invisible values of their time, given shape and form in reality.

Regular trips between apartments on the opposite side of town provide me with a survey of the main streets between the ridge at Davenport Rd. to the lakeshore. In spite of the refrain from our normal everyday, the development process has not been altered in any significant way. The material world continues to unfold around us with few impediments. What has become more apparent are the underlying mechanisms and values that have moved further away from an embodied experience of the city, independent of humans. This holds up a mirror to our values and how we relate to work, home and society at large. In many ways, the current moment of obligatory domesticity gives us pause to evaluate and reflect on how we actually live, compared to how we think we do.

We've reached a moment to reflect on the tracks that have been laid down in the pursuit of endless growth with bottom-line values. Arising from the pandemic, there will be impacts to how we inhabit the physical and in the virtual — shaped by both our speculations for the future and our understanding of the past.

Map of the Toronto Purchase, 1860. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1231, Item 174. (City of Toronto Archives)

The first map of Toronto is framed by a rectangular plot of land bound roughly by Woodbine Avenue to the east Etobicoke Creek to the west, and from Lake Ontario to northern Vaughan. This frame is sutured together by the Humber River while the remaining topography and rivers have been erased. Within this, a smaller grid of 10-square blocks is drawn near the waterfront, its geometry metastasizing in all directions. This frame swapped traditional society with the quantitative logic of private property, generating new needs and new relationships to scarcity.

Like most North American cities, the grid establishes a framework that drives growth and speculation. Streets intermingle and overlap with public and private infrastructure networks like water, electricity, gas and data. Together, they underwrite an even less visible system of financial instruments and debt that bring form and value to the physical world. Out of a complex system of adjacencies and zones, skyscrapers and domes have emerged between the apartments and houses that bring life to the city. The system once set out to organize and instrumentalize territory for human use has evolved separately, governed by its own logic.

In Victorian-era England, the term "miasma" was used to describe an inert particulate capable of spreading contagious disease through the air. This "unhealthy fog" was thought to be carried across cities by winds, infecting the air itself and people in its path. The anxiety surrounding this justified changes at the city scale; in London, massive sewer infrastructure was green-lit, and in New York, Central Park was planned. Beginning in 1854, Baron Haussmann addressed hygienic concerns in Paris by laying a new grid of boulevards throughout the existing city. Through these spatial and human disruptions, the flow of clean air, waste, water and capital was rationalized and controlled.

Today, we are experiencing the inertia brought on by COVID-19, a contagious and airborne virus with very real implications. While scientific advances have surely been made since the 1850s, the human response remains vaguely familiar. In both circumstances, the confusion and lack of control brought by an unanticipated phenomena has at least two common themes: 1) a greater incentive for people to avoid the outside world, and 2) the introduction of new and immersive infrastructure to mitigate the impact, which often yields new opportunities for the ruling class.

Demolition at Beverly St. and College St. (Nicolas Barrette)

At the centre of the pandemic is home (or lack thereof). For many of us, it has become both our public and private, the space where we have been confronted with an indeterminate déjà vu of free-floating anxieties and ratcheting work pressures. The binary between "home" and "not home" has been flattened, and our everyday life is now strung together by a steady and reliable flow of data.

The present has evaporated into a fog of teleconferencing, PDFs and password fatigue, and our screens are undiscerning lighting rods shifting our focus to anything that appears relevant in the moment. The sight and smell of a busy restaurant, or an office on a Monday morning, has receded into the background of our memory — but the essence of these spaces is extracted seamlessly by the swipe of an app. Alongside the grief of an ecological crisis, an institutional crisis, a housing crisis and a longstanding race and class crisis, we have come face-to-face with our own interiors in an entirely new way.

The truth is that none of these spaces were really planned to be occupied full-time for months on end. These 'machines for living' were designed as a backdrop, contingent on the larger cultural and social amenity of the city.- Nicolas Barrette

While many are immersed in the soup of 250- to 500-square-foot containers suspended above ground, it has also been an opportunity to reflect on the products of a decade-long manic run of real estate speculation. We are test-driving the limits of public urban infrastructure, parks and public housing, all while inhabiting smaller and smaller units built in service of density. The truth is that none of these spaces were really planned to be occupied full-time for months on end. These "machines for living" were designed as a backdrop, contingent on the larger cultural and social amenity of the city. Layouts are shaped by cost, codes and well-oiled models that provide the highest-and-best-use from the land they are built on. The logic that underpins our cities from the parcel to the building envelope, from the floor to the individual unit, is reducible and manipulable. These are the values of our time, and they provide shape and form to our everyday lives. We can continue down the path of increasing utility, efficiency and profit — or redirect this energy to drive new innovation.

In some ways, immersing ourselves behind screens at home for an indeterminate amount of time is tantamount to carving new streets and sewers through the miasmatic fog of Paris. The fog, in this case, is the difference between the speed of our brains and the changing speed of reality.

Construction at Iannuzzi St. and Sloping Sky Mews. (Nicolas Barrette)

Imagine living as you are right now, forever. Our foray into a more immersive digital world has set the stage for increased flexibility and the ability to move our heads and shoulders across multiple time zones in the same hour. This, in addition to the lingering presence of a virus, will impact the future of how we use commercial space, open plan offices, co-working and the sharing economy. From the fallout, there will be opportunities to instigate new models for how we can rescale, innovate and adapt perceived norms for city design with greater affordability and equity in mind. A reevaluation of our dependence on resources, cheap materials and energy, along with the historic machinations that govern its development, will also be part of this.

If you share the belief that our cities are physical containers that have been formed by invisible values, it seems like we've reached the moment to reflect on the tracks that have been laid down over the past several decades. Architecture does not exist in a vacuum; it is an agent that acts largely on behalf of the culture and values it exists within. So, when it comes to the spaces we live in, and are likely to further immerse ourselves into, the next phase of growth will involve revising, adapting and maintaining the forms we inhabit. As much as architecture must continue to dream on paper, the most radical experiments with transformative potential must respond to the needs of humans and society at large, not the narrow logic that has hemmed us into an indeterminate everyday.

Stream CBC Arts: Exhibitionists season six episode focused on the role of  architecture and design in our changing world now on CBC Gem.

About the Author

Nicolas Barrette has a background in geography and is also trained as an architect. He has worked for a number of practices in North America and overseas. Currently, he works as a heritage consultant in Toronto and is a sessional lecturer at the University of Toronto's Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design.

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