An open letter to architects: how shall we plan the post-COVID landscape?

Daniel Tabone | Rather than seeing the empty roads solely as an opportunity for more road construction, now would be the time to test the waters on tactical alternatives, and who knows, we might like it

Daniel Tabone is an architect by education, graduating in 2018 with a master's degree in architecture and urban design from the University of Malta

Architects aren’t of much use during a pandemic. Internationally, some firms have been redesigning face masks or entering competitions for hospital or open market concepts – mainly boosting their websites or creating a false sense of ‘essential service’ vibe to justify years of study and sacrifice – when what is required is the continuous manufacture of that which has been tried and tested ages ago.

Locally, we’ve been even less useful to the public – just look at the news. There are, however, some problems which could be tackled or at least observed at this point, namely the issue of open or buffer enclaves within the spaces we design.

These spaces not only serve as a point of contact with the outside, but if designed with some sense, they can offer so much to the dwelling. Such as the integration of services like waterpoints at dwelling entrances or hallways and porches, where it is more practical to ‘sanitize’ oneself prior to entering one’s own sanctuary: essentially, it’s useless entering directly through the living area and washing hands in the bathroom at the end of the corridor, as with common apartment layouts these days. Typical of older dwellings, entrance halls were commonplace and even though not primarily designed as such, they could offer this amenity and separate the heart of the dwelling from the street.

Present policies and laws on internal and back-yard size give minimum open space allowances for light and ventilation, but cannot always promise adequacy. They are also very restrictive, not allowing designers to get truly creative. Let’s face it, in a rogue free market, these minimums have become a rule of thumb. In a society facing calls to stay inside, any architect should be studying these spaces and others like balconies, terraces, front gardens, roof airspaces and even solar rights.

On an urban scale, we should kindle solutions for the distribution, and creation, of pavements and other public routes that integrate public services, re-thought to suit the human scale beyond the sardine-like hoarding of people. Internationally, traditionally congested cities are finding it  necessary to open roads for pedestrians on major thoroughfares, allowing for actual social distancing while not necessarily closing shop. In Malta, where healthcare has been so far more successful in ‘COVID-control’, this might be even more effective.

Rather than seeing the empty roads solely as an opportunity for more road construction, now would be the time to test the waters on tactical alternatives, and who knows, we might like it.

It’s not only architects who are at fault. If you’re selling you should be responsible for a good product and if you’re buying, you’d know your priorities and what you’re investing in. If a garage is more important than the size of your terrace, there’s always the promenade to visit when not in lockdown. However, pandemic or not, a building which falls short of providing adequate buffer and contact with the outside, can just as well be classified as a container with a nice gypsum soffit ceiling.

Even when outside, the car is an excellent capsule to sit comfortably in, but you’d have to get out eventually. Think about all this whenever you feel ‘stuck’ at home or when you try to understand why there are still people on the streets. Remember, these thoughts will come in very handy as we next tackle climate change.