Rethink architecture to combat pandemics: interview with Luca Aldrighi, RMJM Prague Design Director

RMJM

How are you and your firm changing in the era of COVID-19?
“One of the biggest changes across RMJM has been that we are working remotely more regularly, but it wasn’t uncommon for us to work remotely upon occasion before the COVID-19 pandemic. One of the things that we are noticing is that we are becoming better at analysing what contact is essential and what is not. If you have ever attended a meeting and thought “that could have been an email”, you’ll know what I mean when I say that sometimes face-to-face contact can be more distracting than constructive. I think that across firms, not just RMJM, people are using this time as an opportunity to reevaluate what services are important, what elements of the job are necessary and how we prioritise these.”

Do you think this pandemic could change our lifestyle, our social relationships and then our private and working spaces in the future?
“Once the dust settles on this pandemic, I think many people are going to emerge from the experience with different priorities than the ones they entered the pandemic with. People will realise that their needs and expectations from work will have changed. Simply put, people might not want to return to the way things were before. How this might change our working spaces poses an interesting question. In some ways, work spaces might become more collaborative as people recognise the importance of human interaction and relationships. However, we might find that work spaces actually need to be more adaptable, that people experience a reluctance to separate from their friends and family again. If this is the case, then as architects we should focus on how to make work spaces and public spaces blend more seamlessly.”

Do you think that due to this pandemic mobility and urban planning, in general, could change?
“This is an interesting question. I don’t think mobility and urban planning are likely to change as a direct response to the coronavirus pandemic, but I think that we could experience some significant mobility and urban planning changes if remote working and work from home become more prevalent in the wake of the pandemic. We might see a renewed focus on creating more people-centred spaces, with a reduced focus on cars and public transport if there are fewer people commuting. I think we could expect something of a revolution in architecture in the immediate aftermath of lockdown in countries, as people will be rushing to connect with nature and the outdoors again. The most feasible changes we might see as a direct result of the pandemic are going to be related to learning and preparedness.”

Viruses can spread faster and faster in these times of climate change. Do you think architects can contribute to avoid or slow this spreading if they manage to improve ventilation, solar light emission and the finishing materials in the offices?
“This is a rather loaded question that makes a lot of assumptions. Sustainability has been at the forefront of the architecture industry for some time now and there are plenty of techniques and materials that architects can now use to reduce the carbon footprint of a project and improve the development’s energy efficiency. There are also certain materials that can help cleanse the air in a building of pollution. Whether either of these things would have a direct impact on slowing down the spread of a virus is almost impossible to say without extensive scientific research. Research from the World Health Organisation (WHO) points to evidence of links between climate and infectious diseases, but whether architecture can play a role in this is a question that isn’t easy or simple to answer.”

Do you have any ideas, plans or suggestions to reach this goal?
“While I cannot speak for the links between infectious diseases, climate change and architecture, there are things that architecture can do to help governments prepare for large-scale health scares. For example, designing hospitals with adaptable floor layouts to enable them to resize quickly depending on their needs. Similarly, rethinking the two traditional hospital masterplans could impact on the ability of hospitals to treat easily and affordably. Traditionally hospital design falls into one of two categories: pavilion design or block hospitals. Block hospitals are just that, the entire hospital infrastructure in one big tower block. This avoids the high costs of creating all of the roads, resources and management of large pavilion hospital sites, but it doesn’t create a particularly positive recovery environment for patients. Conversely, the pavilion hospital is normally a collection of buildings each with central courtyards and a lot of outdoor areas. This creates a much more positive recovery experience for patients but it is far more expensive to construct and maintain, and it creates inefficiencies in the movement of people and resources around the hospital. Finding a middle ground between these two designs, to encourage patient recovery while keeping building construction and maintenance costs low is a task that architects are going to need to consider more carefully in the coming months and years.”

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