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Design the new normal

Lockdown, day 49.

From my home in Tiana, Spain. Keep distance. That's the saying now that the virus has caught us. In the Netherlands, the "1.5-meter society" has become a notion. In Spain, it takes another half a meter to be safe. Assuming there won't be any sneezing, because a good sneeze can reach eight meters. Be that as it may, scientists agree that keeping distance is vital today. Even if it will be less pressing soon, the virus will not go away. We are predicted to expect new outbreaks on a regular basis. Social distance could become the new normal, at least as long as there's no vaccine available. The Dutch hospitality industry is preparing for a society with 1.5 meters distance. There is puzzling and calculating, shifting and pasting; fewer people at the table, more space around the chairs, partitions and tape on the floor to keep customers in line. Sometimes very nice ideas come out, such as dining in private greenhouses at Mediamatic. Social distance is psychology, but it's also an issue of space. It's about all areas where people gather; including squares, streets and parks. The entire public space needs to be redesigned. Opportunities abound for architects and spatial desginers, you'd think. Ole Bouman, director of Design Society in Shenzhen, called upon the organizers of the Venice Architecture Biennale in early March, after they had postponed the opening of the event to late August. "No," Bouman had said, "don't postpone, but use this time of house arrest for research and reflection. Don't see the pandemic as a temporary interruption, after which we just continue as normal. See it as a challenge, as something that inspires! Don't wait until the end of August, do it now!" 'How will we live together' is the theme of this biennale, it could hardly be more appropriate.

The day before yesterday, I watched the video lecture that Bouman gave on this subject in a program of the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven. He showed how after the previous pandemic - the Spanish flu that arose in the wake of World War I - architects made revolutionary designs. Under the motto 'health: light, air and space', groundbreaking designs were created that radically changed the course of architecture, with as striking example the First Open-Air School by architect Jan Duiker in 1930.

The reason I attended the lecture is that I always like to hear Bouman speak, but also because I'm interested in the subject. We're in a situation that yearns for new impulses. I had hoped that Bouman would show new architectural proposals. But his examples came mainly from the field of technology and from everyday life. I really enjoyed the one of the school class in China where the children had made their own 'social distancing hats' at home.

Where it's really happening is on the streets. People are now forced to live at a distance. And they do that by any means they can think of. Sidewalks become terraces or stages, people flirt from their balconies, they hang out of the windows, meet on either sides of their windows and they chalk up messages on the streets. Come on, architects and spatial designers, let your imagination speak, come up with inspiring visions. How are we going to design spaces with a meter and a half distance? How do you conveive shopping streets where people keep their distance? How do you design squares where large events can take place? How do you create restaurants where social distance does not lead to a drop in turnover? And not unimportant, how do you create distance that leads to social contact? Design the new normal. And do this so well, that your proposals will also be valuable for life after Corona.


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