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Building Public Places for a Covid World


After disasters like Hurricane Katrina, the Sept. 11 attacks and Hurricane Sandy, architects quickly responded with evocative ideas, transformative visions and alluring — if sometimes grandiose — solutions.

Designers’ imaginations have been no less active as the pandemic has rent the fabric of people’s lives — after all, architectural spaces are directly implicated in the spread of the virus. The architects’ response to this disaster has been less visionary, focusing on modest, tactical solutions necessarily respectful of the rigid strictures of contagion control.

Architects and other designers who have devoted efforts to creating public places that encourage gathering and sociability now say their task is to make congregating in these spaces possible again — and perhaps to achieve some community-enhancing goals in the process.

Apsny Newsasked several architects and landscape architects to tell us what they are brainstorming with their colleagues, and how they are dreaming outside the six-foot bubble that now guides our movements and interactions.

For example, Open Streets, the city initiative that temporarily privileges people over cars, relegates vehicles to secondary status, permitting much richer — and socially distanced — uses to proliferate, from curb-lane dining to skateboard choreography. This expansion of sidewalks has heightened the awareness that “public-space design is a critical piece of maintaining democracy and cosmopolitan city life,” observed Kate Orff, the founder of the landscape architecture firm SCAPE and the director of Columbia University’s urban design program.

Typically, she explained, “New York City collapses the boundaries between personal space and public space.” It’s one reason staying at home has been hard for so many people, Ms. Orff added. “We have always spilled out from apartments into streets in different ways.”

In the designs that follow, architects are investigating how to reduce health threats in hospitals and allow libraries to serve their vital role. They are trying to invent new kinds of architecture that work around a broken policing and justice system. And in some of their real-world projects, they show how expansive urban parks can clear our isolation-induced mental cobwebs and reweave our fractured bonds as they help us celebrate acts of cautious gathering.

Claire Weisz, who leads WXY, an urban design and architecture firm, applauds the newly streamlined process that has allowed streets to become more than tubes of speeding vehicles. Now curb lanes around the city host chattering but distanced diners in colorful enclosures enlivened by umbrellas, canopies and flower boxes. But she would like to see more. Diversifying space for use by different groups is long overdue, the architect said. “Shared streets need to be designed and curated so that everyone knows they have a right to use the street and feel comfortable.”

Ms. Weitz was inspired to consider opportunities on plazas and pedestrian islands when she witnessed a guitar and drum duo practicing there. “Why not mark the asphalt with street games?” she mused. “Or build a temporary picnic-style shelter on the street to host an outdoor library or study space?”

For a project to revitalize retail, commissioned by the Hudson Square Business Improvement District, she proposes erecting awnings above the sidewalk so that stationery, clothing and other stores too small to accommodate social distancing can bring their wares outside.

Can streets and sidewalks safely aid the reopening of schools? Ms. Weisz is among several firms that have been hired to design adaptations to the Brooklyn Laboratory Charter School near the Manhattan Bridge. While the firms Gensler and PBDW determined how many students could be accommodated in classroom-seating arrangements with six-foot separations, the challenge for Ms. Weisz’s firm and the Brooklyn-based architecture firm SITU was to safely bring groups of students into the building, on a staggered schedule — logistics akin to air traffic control.

WXY laid out areas for groups to wait on sidewalks around the full-block school building, designing cheerful graphic demarcations. SITU designed shelters out of a white-painted sidewalk scaffolding system called Urban Umbrella that uses tree-form supports to hold up a translucent ceiling. In these provisional outdoor classrooms, staff could lead the students in activities — calisthenics, say, or Spanish drills — as they waited their turn to enter. The school has been testing the shelter and entry strategies in preparation for planned school reopenings this month. The shelter includes a partitioned area where students are screened and their temperatures taken before they enter.

During protests in Oakland, Calif., this spring, windows were smashed in the co-working space where Deanna Van Buren serves as executive director of Designing Justice/Designing Spaces. She co-founded the organization to support structural change in the justice system — the kind of change intended to prevent tragedies like the one that led to George Floyd’s killing. “It’s being aggravated by the pandemic,” she said. “And there’s no national grieving for this.”

In Los Angeles, Designing Justice/Designing Spaces has been brought in to analyze organizations that offer alternatives to incarceration, looking for opportunities to make them more effective. They train youths in conflict resolution and other skills that help them avoid future lawbreaking. Ms. Van Buren and her staff are beginning to define a new kind of facility, a “de-escalation” center — a place where conflicts can be anticipated and possibly resolved. It could be a home to “violence interrupters,” people who may themselves have been incarcerated and therefore can credibly intervene before disputes escalate into shootings, for example. “It would be a place you can go instead of involving the police,” Ms. Van Buren said.

The work fits in with the nonprofit’s other facilities, which are intended to counter the culture of arrest, detain and punish. In Oakland, a center for restorative justice helps offenders take responsibility for their crimes and make amends outside the corrections system. “Our work supports community organizers, because they show government how to change,” she said.

In June her firm submitted a study, requested by Atlanta’s mayor, Keisha Lance Bottoms, that proposes to transform the grim, high-rise City Juvenile Detention Center into a Center for Equity. The plan would demolish jail-style cells to bring ample light into what are now windowless day rooms that offered detainees little more than a television and bolted-down tables. The center would offer “one-stop shopping” for a variety of services that help strengthen low-income communities in areas including financial literacy, mental and physical health and navigating the justice system. The design enlarges elevator lobbies, substituting the fortified doors of today with play areas, greenery and daylight.

Walter Hood’s landscape architecture firm, Hood Design Studio, has created major parks and museum gardens in Oakland, San Francisco and New York. He is also doubling down on the work he has been doing for 20 years: helping historically African-American communities rediscover history that’s been erased through abandonment or demolished by urban renewal. “I use design art to help people see something that’s no longer there,” he said.

In LaVilla, Fla., a largely African-American enclave west of downtown Jacksonville, he is designing a park to celebrate James Weldon Johnson and John Rosamond Johnson, brothers born in LaVilla in the 1870s, who grew up to become prolific Broadway composers. (The park is named for their 1900 composition “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” which the NAACP called the “Negro national anthem.”) James also became a prominent civil-rights leader.

LaVilla was wealthy enough to support the city’s first hospitals for Black people as well as a training facility for Black nurses. A lively retail strip lined with music clubs attracted celebrity acts as prominent as Louis Armstrong. But little evidence of the neighborhood’s vitality in the Johnsons’ day remains — the park site is a flat empty city block covered with grass.

Mr. Hood is using the park design as a springboard to a larger effort to “tie the communities’ memories back together.” He is adapting some remaining shotgun houses to give a sense of what the neighborhood was once like, without recreating lost structures, including the Johnson house, which was demolished. One house will have a wall removed to form a performance stage facing a grass amphitheater. He said he was not trying to make a big artistic statement, but rather that the ordinariness of these artifacts interested him. “The houses convey an everyday quality that is authentic,” he said. “In each landscape I try to find these stories — to let these narratives emerge.”

Mr. Hood hopes to place billboard-style artworks to commemorate the “great Black way,” where only the Art Deco-style Ritz theater remains.

“Four billion people on earth are going through a very similar spatial awakening,” said Michael Murphy, co-founder of the Boston-based nonprofit MASS Design Group.We ask ourselves, is this air contaminated? Is this surface contaminated? Do I go into this building?” He is intimately familiar with air as a substance that must be reckoned with: His firm has designed health care facilities in places like Rwanda and Haiti, where airborne infections are a fact of life.

MASS has created clinics that are bathed in daylight and steer fresh air to patients through windows and grillwork in parts of the world that can’t afford HEPA filters and ultraviolet-light disinfection. American hospitals are sealed to optimize the performance of elaborate ventilating systems, and windows are an afterthought. Many had to be expensively retrofitted to handle Covid-19 patients. Fresh air could prove necessary to help hospitals respond to contagion more flexibly and reassure patients that medical facilities are safe, Mr. Murphy said. “I’m dreaming of buildings that bring fresh air back into our lives,” with floors that could open to outdoor balconies or garden courtyards.

An evaluation done remotely for Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan followed clinicians with GoPro cameras as they navigated labyrinthine hallways filled with staff and equipment in wards hastily refitted at the peak of Covid-19 hospitalizations in April. The project revealed flaws in the way patients were isolated in the makeshift arrangement. These problems were quickly remedied with colored tape on the floors, plexiglass partitions, and bright graphics painted on temporary drywall partitions, all to clearly convey when people were leaving and entering contaminated spaces. MASS quickly shared what it had learned in freely available guidance to help hospitals manage infection control during their times of greatest stress.

That led to additional guidelines rapidly developed with public-health and industry partners to help organizations reopen their buildings safely — among the most important roles architects can play amid the uncertainties of the pandemic. Guidelines for restaurants include safe practices for kitchen staff as well as customers. Those for jails address the herculean task of social distancing. MASS has urged senior living developments to claim outdoor space so that people can enjoy each other’s company on a roof, or exercise or garden together. Residents, for example, could form groups or “villages” of 8 to 10 units. A village could share a game room or balcony so that residents need not collect in large, crowded multipurpose rooms.

Construction, halted briefly by the pandemic, has resumed at the nearly complete Greenpoint Library and Environmental Education Center in Brooklyn. The project has risen amid a mix of vinyl-sided rowhouses and small shops. This newest addition to the Brooklyn Public Library system is well-suited to today’s wariness of enclosed spaces. A natural-habitat garden has been planted along the street as part of the library’s special mission to teach about the environment. It will be an inviting place for passers-by to pause outside or connect to Wi-Fi.

One roof level will host outdoor learning on a planted terrace; the other is designed as a demonstration garden. “We have included exterior public space in all three of the libraries we have designed in New York,” explained Karen Fairbanks, whose architecture firm, Marble Fairbanks, also built the Glen Oaks Library, in Queens, and renovated the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, in Manhattan. “They encourage gathering and meeting — a way to engage and support community.”

“Now that we can’t use shared spaces, we realize how critical they are,” Ms. Fairbanks said. Even when libraries are closed, people can order e-books and online programming. “Libraries are still the portal for information, more trusted than other sources,” she added.

“Each branch is a community place. When open they may be helping people build skills or acting as child-care centers. They’ve been 3-D printing PPE,” she said.

Kate Orff, of SCAPE, is thinking expansively beyond streets and buildings. “Large parks are key,” she said. “People want to encounter each other outdoors.” Such parks can encourage nature-based play and are “not filled with petrochemical, off-the-shelf equipment commonly found in playgrounds.” She lives not far from, and admires, Forest Park in Queens, N.Y. — “a crown jewel,” she calls it. She just wishes more people could use it; sliced by a highway, it is hard to access on foot or bicycle.

She’s made sure the Queens park’s shortcomings won’t afflict a plan she has made for the conversion of a 100-mile stretch of the Chattahoochee River that runs northwest of metro Atlanta. She envisions a vast linear park “that will knit neighborhoods together with intertwined biking and walking trails.” (More than a million people live within three miles of the river.) This project serves many agendas, from fishing and kayaking to environmental restoration and water quality improvements in the wetlands.

SCAPE is also working on the Hudson Highlands Fjord Trail, a 7.5-mile-long park and trail network connecting Cold Spring and Beacon, N.Y., towns along the Hudson River separated by rock cliffs. “I see large connective landscapes as combating the isolation and interiority of Covid,” she said. “We need transformative landscapes that really burst open the patterns of life that we are experiencing now.”


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