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The Views From Here
How will the COVID-19 pandemic affect design? For some highly educated guesses, Azure consulted a who’s who of architects and designers, their specialties wide-ranging. Herewith are their prognostications on the offices, schools, airports and civic spaces of tomorrow. (Spoiler alert: You may no longer need that passport holder. And how about theatres on rooftops?)
Carlo Ratti Believes the Physical Workspace Will Endure
Adam Tihany Creates an Easy Hospitality Hack
How Good Design Can Help Schools Safely Re-Open
The New Normal Airport Experience, According to Luis Vidal
Winnipeg’s 5468796 Imagines a Nimble Urbanism
Trust City, Smart City, Forest City
Blouin Orzes on the Resilience of the North
The Views From Here

Over the past few months, COVID-19 has greatly altered the way we work. Forced into lockdowns all around the world, many of us have abandoned our traditional offices, instead connecting with people through digital services such as Zoom, Skype and FaceTime. If such patterns were to persist, the consequences for cities could be major. Certainly, a lot of real estate would be freed up — something that might be bad news for developers, but not so bad for citizens, as large metropolises could become more affordable for the young and less wealthy. More importantly, new living patterns might redefine the prevailing modes of human habitation. As it was during the mid–20th century, suburbia might again become a preferred urban form — with drastic repercussions for our global infrastructure.

The key question is: Will we still go to the office? Some multinational companies (Twitter and Shopify among them) have bet that this won’t be the case, granting their employees the right to work from home — forever. Are we witnessing the prelude to the death of the modern office? I do not believe so. Even if we were able to solve all the issues with home working — from faltering Internet connections to the pesky intrusions of scantily clad passersby in live Zoom sessions — we would still need physical places to meet and interact with our colleagues.

Our initial analysis of digital telecommunications on the MIT campus, where I work, suggests that the lack of physical interaction (both pre- and post-COVID-19) is making our social networks more fragile. As investigated almost 50 years ago by Stanford University sociologist Mark Granovetter, fragmented social networks tend to make “strong ties” even stronger, but undermine those occasional “weak ties” that play a key role in human well-being and idea generation. Physical space, in other words, is still the most effective antidote to the polarization of online networks. The case for the office is therefore stronger than ever — and will be even after the pandemic.

Architect and educator Carlo Ratti is a founding partner at innovation and design firm Carlo Ratti Associati and a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. At MIT, he directs the Senseable City Lab, a research group that explores the relationship between new technologies and urban design.

“Thinking about the reopening of restaurants right now can be stressful, but not thinking about it can be disastrous,” says globetrotting interior designer Adam Tihany, renowned for his high-end hospitality work. Counting celebrity chefs such as Daniel Boulud and Thomas Keller among his clients, Tihany is well-placed to consider the post-COVID-19 future of restaurants, especially the variety of pricey eateries that diners flock to as much for the ambience as for the food.

Among his solutions: semi-custom privacy barriers that redefine the experience of fine dining by emphasizing being present over being seen, ensuring both intimacy and safety in the process. “The screens are designed with wellness and comfort in mind,” says Alessia Genova, managing partner at Tihany Design, which is based in New York City, “but they also evoke a kind of ‘public privacy’ that we feel might offer a positive spin on rebuilding the experience of dining out. It becomes an opportunity to focus on the faces and food in front of you while still enjoying the atmosphere, the service and everything we’ve been missing while apart from our favourite restaurants.”

Although Tihany’s lightweight, easy-to-maintain screens share the same semi-opaque glass panelling, the wooden frames can be tailored to complement a range of interiors, from ornate to contemporary, sumptuous to hard-edged. For beleaguered restaurateurs, the designer’s solution offers a concrete (if temporary) tool that’s as elegant as it is effective. What distinguishes it further is the rarefied category it addresses — and the way it might inspire a rethink of how we inhabit such spaces going forward.

Places of learning are by nature interactive, typically involving densely packed classrooms, crowded hallways and communal areas for eating, exercise and assembly. So how do schools adapt to a threat that discourages such activity? “To promote a higher level of health safety, socializing will have to change,” says Paul Sapounzi, managing partner at +VG Architects, a 60-person Canadian firm with a specialty in designing educational facilities.

According to Sapounzi, “schools will become more fluid places so that students have choices for learning outside as well as inside the classroom. They need to be able to learn in different parts of the building. The entire school becomes the classroom.”

Practically speaking, such a template already exists: +VG’s St. Mary’s College, a consolidated high school opened in 2016 in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. A defining feature of the building, for which the firm designed the floor plan and interiors, is a 12-metre-high, multi-functional atrium that effectively dissolves the boundaries “between what have traditionally been discrete, disconnected spaces,” says Sapounzi.

As envisioned by the architect, this so-called learning commons, which is flooded with natural light and has become a “magnet” for St. Mary’s students, serves as library, cafeteria, assembly hall and more. Its functions are delineated by carpet tile and seating groups, which can be altered at will. The commons also provides direct, open access to other key areas (such as the gym and auditorium) and includes quiet zones.

“When St. Mary’s was on the drawing board,” Sapounzi says, “the goal was to future-proof the school by designing built-in flexibility to accommodate a wide range of teaching scenarios.” COVID-19, of course, wasn’t among them, but +VG’s design nonetheless gives St. Mary’s the versatility to tackle it. Another high school by +VG, slated to break ground this summer in the city of Windsor, Ontario, will be even more explicitly COVID-proof. The plan will feature four additional “touchdown zones” to enhance the dispersal of students; corners of the learning commons will be used for small, spread-out gatherings.

Spanish architect Luis Vidal has worked on more than 30 airport designs worldwide, including the award-winning Zaragoza Airport in northeastern Spain and the beloved Queen’s Terminal at London Heathrow. His floor plans are spacious and open-ended, his interiors bathed in natural light. Few people alive have thought so carefully about the experience of being in an airport. Thanks to COVID-19, that experience is likely to change dramatically, as the architect, who is currently working on Pittsburgh International’s new terminal, tells Azure. In Vidal’s view, the post-pandemic airport will be unlike anything we’ve seen before.

Simon Lewsen: It seems clear that, if airports are to become safer from an epidemiological standpoint, we will need to move through them in a different way. There will need to be less clustering, shorter lineups and fewer checkpoints where documents are passed between travellers and employees. How will this work?

We will see the deployment of facial-recognition software, even for people who are wearing surgical masks. Companies can already do this. There will be a requirement to go to a government ID centre every five or 10 years to get your face and iris scanned. When you arrive at the airport, the facial-recognition devices will be waiting for you, and your data will be attached to a kind of electronic identity that follows you as you move through the building. You can then go through filters like customs and immigration without having to bring out your passport.

So your passport would be your face?

Your face and your iris, yes.

What about airport security?

You’ll walk down a corridor and have yourself and your luggage scanned without even knowing it. If you have something suspicious with you, a staff member will approach you and gently ask you to step aside.

Will this be technologically possible?

The technology already exists. It’s possible for you to go through security without having to line up, pull out your belt, take off your shoes and put your computer on a tray.

Why hasn’t this technology been implemented?

Because passengers perceive more security if they go through the familiar security processes.

So airport security as it’s practised today is a kind of performance, and not strictly necessary?

Exactly. In the future, there may also be new, more sensible checkpoints to pass through before you even arrive at the terminal. There are lots of airports in Asia where they stop every vehicle approaching the access road to search for bombs. There’s no reason why they couldn’t introduce something similar elsewhere, but instead of looking for explosives they’d take your temperature. And when you walk through the double doors to enter the building, the doors might close for an extra second, keeping you there while ultraviolet light passes over your shoes and clothes.

The goal would be to kill pathogens on your person?

I’m optimistic. Imagine if the developments I’ve described bring an end to those long lines at security. That alone would be fantastic, wouldn’t it?

When you finally get to the gate, would you still have to line up to board the plane?

Instead of boarding by group, each passenger would be given their own number. You would approach the gate only when your number comes up. The lower numbers would go to the people who are sitting at the back of the plane.

So you’d board from the back to the front, with each person entering in turn and nobody standing in line?

Right. The goal would be to avoid bottlenecks.

What will the airport of the future look and feel like?

Ideally, you’ll be in an environment that transmits calmness and comfort. That would come through the use of natural light, good ventilation and a colour palette that gives a sense of tranquility. This pandemic has made people realize how many things they didn’t have. People have been confined at home without a balcony or terrace. They’re rediscovering the need for sun and space and volume.

Your existing airport designs certainly focus on these elements, which make for a soothing ambience. But is there a sinister side to the future you’re envisioning? To your mind, is there anything unnerving about the idea of facial-recognition software, about a building that recognizes you as soon as you walk in?

I have absolutely no problem with that. I know people have issues about sharing their personal identity or giving personal data. But they have to acknowledge that we are already being captured by street cameras everywhere. Hardly a crime happens today on the street that is not filmed, and it only takes between one and five days for the police to find you. We already live in this world.

Do you think, then, that airport design will change for the better because of the pandemic?

I’m optimistic. Imagine if the developments I’ve described bring an end to those long lines at security. That alone would be fantastic, wouldn’t it?

Lead image courtesy of Gensler and HDR in association with Luis Vidal + Architects.

Winnipeggers Johanna Hurme, Colin Neufeld and Sasa Radulovic, partners in 5468796 Architecture, are among the most respected urbanists in Canada. Their creations range from idiosyncratic residential complexes (including 62M, the discus-shaped building on stilts shown above) to beloved community events (see Table for 1200, one of the world’s largest outdoor dinner parties). Their design philosophy centres on cosmopolitanism, participation and togetherness — themes that, at least on the surface, seem at odds with the conventions of social distancing. But perhaps, as they tell Simon Lewsen, this doesn’t have to be true.

Simon Lewsen: Let’s start by articulating the case for pessimism. How might COVID-19 make our cities worse?

Johanna Hurme

I worry that people will go back to this notion that the only way to live is to have vast amounts of personal space.

Colin Neufeld

People might say, “We should make the streets wider for cars, because we’re safer in our cars.” This mentality could erode our civic culture.

You clearly believe that density and well-used public spaces are good for cities, but hasn’t COVID-19 shown us that these things are dangerous?


Density doesn’t mean cramming as many people into a room or park as possible. It’s about decent, human-scale housing and outdoor spaces where people can have social contact but with more elbow room than before.

How do we create that elbow room when our cities are already tightly packed?

Sasa Radulovic

We make the sidewalks wider and narrow the streets. With people working less and being at home more often, the traffic has been reduced. That’s a change we should seize.

Since COVID-19 hit, we’ve discovered that the outdoors is the one place where we can all get together relatively safely. Should we therefore be rethinking many aspects of outdoor design?


The street that Johanna and I live on is lined with patios. A few years back, businesses started extending their patios and taking over parking spots. We should keep experimenting with initiatives like this.


It’s all about flexibility. This is not going to be the last pandemic. We will need places that expand when social distancing is necessary and contract when it isn’t. In 2017, we launched Design Quarter, a non-profit organization that promotes local, design-focused businesses. Last year, we gave blankets to member restaurants. Today, if customers aren’t able to sit in them because of social distancing, there are still many pocket parks in the city. People can get takeout from a restaurant, borrow a blanket and create a shared food court outdoors.

What other urban spaces might we reclaim?


Rooftops are underutilized. When you get high up on many of the buildings in Winnipeg, you see nothing but mechanical units and gravel.


A few years back, we discussed turning the rooftop of a Winnipeg parkade into a drive-in theatre. In Toronto, the downtown Eaton Centre has a tremendous amount of rooftop parking.  Wouldn’t it be amazing if they screened open-air movies there?

All these ideas — extended patios, park restaurants, rooftop cinemas — sound like wonderful summer initiatives. But what happens when the weather turns cold?


We need to create pockets of warmth. Last summer, we visited a project in Malmö, Sweden, called Bo01, about the effects of urban microclimates. There, a cold breeze comes off the North Sea, but if you step into certain courtyards, you’ll find that the temperature suddenly increases by 10 degrees.

How do you achieve that effect?


You situate buildings at 45-degree angles to the south, so that you get more sun exposure to different sides. You place your patios on the north side of the streets, so they capture the southern sun. And you set buildings in a pinwheel arrangement around a central courtyard, which is then protected from the wind.

You’ve sketched out two possible post-COVID-19 futures: one in which space is privatized and severed from the commons, and another in which we rebuild our cities in pedestrian-friendly ways. How does one make the case for the latter vision?


You emphasize the positive changes that have already happened. As urbanists, we should say, “Look, because of COVID-19, we’re already spending more time on the sidewalks. Now, let’s make them better and safer.”


It’s the responsibility of design folk to put a positive message out there. We’ve all seen how, over the past several months, dense cities have had massive reductions in pollution and traffic and improved air quality. The message we should convey is, “Let’s preserve these changes. Aren’t they better for all of us?”

On the Importance of Building Trust – Coronavirus is making people more aware of their built environment, so this is an opportunity for architects and designers to use design to engage on an emotional, spiritual and cultural level. Related to this is the importance of designing for trust. Many people are afraid to re-enter the public realm right now — that realm is under threat. Consequently, design needs to be used to help build trust between all parties concerned — between restaurant owners and patrons, park authorities and visitors, hospitals and patients. We need to keep people safe, but we also need to reassure people that experts are implementing changes to keep them safe. By Regina Yang

Regina Yang is a senior director at MASS Design Group in Boston. Its mission is to research, build and advocate for architecture that is purposeful, healing and hopeful.

On the Continuing Importance of Re-Naturing Cities – More than ever before, urban forestry and agriculture can make the city a more liveable place by including it in a wider ecosystem integrated with protected woods, mountains and rural areas. The challenge is to design smart, green and self-sufficient buildings, neighbourhoods and cities by considering the circular economy model and by using clean energy. When we build our Vertical Forests, we start with the selection of plants, shrubs and trees, adapting to the climatic conditions of the site and drawing the facades according to the greenery they will accommodate. Vertical Forests are designed to welcome both trees and human beings as inhabitants, in buildings where the presence of living nature makes architecture act as a powerful ecosystem. By Stefano Boeri

Stefano Boeri is the founder of Boeri Architetti, which has graduated from verdant towers to entire forest cities, like the one currently planned for Cancun, Mexico.

On What the “Smart City” Actually Means Now – When it comes to the smart city of the future, the most important thing is to use technology for good. And that means ensuring sustainability, which goes hand in hand with health. From a civic point of view, there are three kinds of health: social health (bringing people together as a community), mental health (which entails making people feel safe, seen and accepted) and physical health (which involves a healthy environment that allows people to grow their own food, for instance, in a semi-public garden). From now on, technology should be used to support sustainability and health the same way that an analog solution would. It should not be used merely as a gadget. By Ben van Berkel

Dutch architect Ben van Berkel is co-founder and principal of Amsterdam-based UNStudio and a lecturer at TU Delft.

The advantage of the Northern regions in this period of COVID-19 comes from the fact that they’re isolated. There are no roads or railways that link Nunavik (where we’ve done a lot of work) to southern Quebec (where we’re based). That makes the Inuit communities that live in the North very sensitive to the precariousness that accompanies their isolation, but also greatly resilient.

For instance, the Katittavik Cultural Centre we designed in the northern village of Kuujjuarapik is currently closed and 2020 programming has been cancelled. The village authorities we spoke to recently, however, tell us that they are thinking of new ways to use this multi-functional room, with its variable geometry and retractable seating system, to ensure that physical distancing will be the norm for a long time to come.

Completed in 2018, the brightly clad Katittavik Cultural Centre in remote Kuujjuarapik was designed with resilience and flexibility in mind.

The situation is the same in the town of Churchill, Manitoba, where Polar Bears International House, an interpretation centre we completed in 2019, is currently closed but is also being repurposed. In the longer term, the impact of COVID-19 will also be felt in the interior design of several seniors’ residences currently underway in Nunavik and Nunavut.

Marc Blouin and Catherine Orzes co-run Montreal-based Blouin Orzes Architectes, which has been designing projects in Canada’s North for two decades.