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During the COVID-19 pandemic, and especially when quarantines were in effect, the places we inhabit and traverse through took on weighted implications. Suddenly, the mechanical systems in our schools, the cross-ventilation in our homes and the germs on every doorknob we touched were top of mind. This foregrounding of physical space, and the way it can affect our wellbeing, led us to re-examine how we create our homes, how we design and use our cities and what kinds of public, outdoor realms we require to be able to manage some sort of active life in spite of the circumstances. It’s these considerations that are at the heart of an exhibition taking place at CIVA Brussels called Sick Architecture until August 28.

Aino and Alvar Aalto's sanatorium of Paimio, Finland, viewed from south façade, 1930s on view at Sick Architecture at CIVA in Brussels
Aino and Alvar Aalto’s sanatorium of Paimio, Finland. Photo by Gustaf Welin.

Over the past few years, the architectural historian and theorist Beatriz Colomina, in collaboration with supporters, has been curating a series of essays on Sick Architecture on e-flux Architecture. Expanding the lens of the current pandemic to look at how architecture and illness have influenced each other throughout modern history, the explorations are wide-ranging, from Colomina’s Diary of a Disease, focused on the current pandemic, to Edna Bonhomme’s examination of how cholera outbreaks affected slaves living on plantations — “a site of designed terror and resistance” — and Guillermo Sánchez Arsuaga’s dissection of Ellis Island’s immigration station, which was designed to segregate immigrants into desirable and undesirable bodies, according to their perceived mental and physical defects.

CIAM Algiers team, presentation panel on tuberculosis in Bidonville Mahieddinne, for the 9th CIAM congress in Aix-en-Provence, 1953. Fondation Le Corbusier.
A presentation panel on tuberculosis for the 9th CIAM congress in Aix-en-Provence in 1953. Image courtesy of Fondation Le Corbusier.

Building on this collection, the CIVA museum in Brussels recently inaugurated Sick Architecture, which brings these stories to life in an exhibition with images and artefacts. “Architectural discourse always weaves itself through theories of body and brain, constructing the architect as a kind of doctor and the client as patient,” Colomina and her co-curators explain.

Vivian Caccuri's Mosquito Shrine II on view at CIVA's Sick Architecture exhibition in Brussels
Vivian Caccuri’s Mosquito Shrine II (2020), as it hangs in the Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami. Photo by Zachary Balber.

The show looks at how architecture can, intentionally or not, exacerbate illness, as well as how it can be a mitigating response to it. Modern architecture was largely influenced by tuberculosis; clean lines, the banishing of ornament and the embrace of access to sunlight and fresh air and the connection between indoors and out were made paramount. Today, an approach to salubrious architecture might consider ours the “age of neurological disorders,” as the curators explain, “with depression, ADHD, borderline personality disorders, burnout syndrome, allergies and ‘environmental hypersensitivity’ defining the experience of the built environment.”

Hans Hollein's Non-physical environment (1967) presents at CIVA’s Sick Architecture
Hans Hollein’s Non-physical environment (1967)

There is a lot to think about here, and the show presents many highlights on which to hinge its ideas. Among them are Aino and Alvar Aalto’s sanatorium of Paimio, Finland, built in the 1930s, and architecten Jan de Vylder Inge Vinck’s psychiatric institute Kanunnik Petrus Jozef Triestplein in Melle from 2016; as well as art-minded works by Elizabeth Diller and Vivian Caccuri and the 1960s experiments by Hans Hollein, such as his Non-physical environment, which posits that everything — even a pill mounted on cardboard — is architecture.

Sick Architecture Exhibition in Brussels Widens the Lens on How Our Spaces Affect Us

Curated by Beatriz Colomina, the Sick Architecture exhibition gathers examples from across modern history of how buildings can heal us — or make us sick.

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