Practising in a Pandemic: Reflections on the Present and Future Impact of COVID-19

This article appeared in the print edition of Architecture Ireland (RIAI Journal) Issue 311 May/June 2020, page 84

As the profession steers through this crisis, the way we restructure our workflows will be an endorsement of how we see the future of work itself. At ArchDaily, where digital processes were second-nature, we did not experience the same unfamiliar migration from offices to homes that many architectural firms (including mine) experienced. Instead, our scramble was to understand this new world, and generate content to empower our audience. We noted a clear bottom line: offices and institutions with existing flexible, hybrid environments had the space to respond proactively to the crisis and even launch new products and services, while those whose embrace of digital workflows had stalled were forced into a reactive response to unfolding events.

These reflections within the architectural community about how to restructure and reimagine our operational model can be of significant benefit not just to ourselves, but to the larger built environment. In a ‘post-peak, pre-vaccine’ environment, there will be many forks in the road concerning the future of work. How architects analyse, reconsider, and redesign both our office and business models will influence how we design future work environments for other industries.

This paradigm shift may lead to a revision of established norms in architecture and urbanism. It may require us to ask deep questions of how our behavioural changes will affect the built environment. If people become reluctant to use public transport for health reasons, how can we avoid a return to the car-dominated urbanism that architects fought so hard against? What are the consequences if offices relocate en-masse away from urban centres and towards out-of-town office parks? How can a work-from-home model avoid the hollowing out of city centres, and an explosion of urban sprawl? While recent centuries have seen a global arc towards a Renaissance city state model of urbanism, is it time to revisit the role of the city in the everyday life of citizens, particularly if offices join retail units in a shift from physical to digital?

There are no easy answers to the above questions, nor should we expect there to be. Nevertheless, they are questions which position architects as valuable contributors, or even leaders, in the conversation about how our ‘new normal’ will balance urban and rural, physical and digital, individual and collective. But the fundamental question for architects has not changed: what relationship would we like between ourselves and the built environment?

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