Architecture after Coronavirus

Is the open-plan office dead? Can skyscrapers survive? Will our phones control everything from the lights to ordering coffee?

With each of us now living in socially distanced self-isolation, with shops shuttered, offices abandoned and urban centres reduced to ghost towns, it’s hard not to wonder what kind of lasting impact Covid-19 will have on our cities. Will homes need to adapt to better accommodate work? Will pavements widen so we can keep our distance? Will we no longer want to live so densely packed together, working in open-plan offices and cramming into lifts? Will the beloved British pastime of queuing ever be the same again?

“This is the best time ever to think of a walkable city,” says Wouter Vanstiphout, professor of design as politics at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands. “Could coronavirus be a catalyst for decentralisation? We have these enormous hospitals and people living on top of each other, but still having to travel long distances across the city to get to them. The pandemic suggests we should distribute smaller units such as hospitals and schools across more of the urban tissue and strengthen local centres.”

With travel limited, the local high street has come into its own: corner shops and bodegas are generally proving much better stocked than supermarkets. The pandemic has also made visible other changes that have been happening under our noses. Vanstiphout says his friends who live in central Amsterdam have had a rude awakening. “Now that tourism has stopped and the Airbnbs are empty,” he says, “they have discovered they have no neighbours. There is no neighbourhood. There is no city. If you subtract the tourists, there is nothing.”

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