3 Designers Envision a Better Future

After weeks of working from home, mitigating our exposure to the outside world while navigating the ways we must still interact with it, and balancing our own hopes and fears for the future with challenging economic and industry forecasts, it’s important that we acknowledge how stressful life has suddenly become. But it’s just as crucial to imagine new ways of coping, and of ways our communities can transform under pressure. Here, we continue our ongoing series of dispatches from the design community with ideas of how to conceptualize our present and envision a better future.

Editor's note: This story is the sixth installment in a series of conversations with designers, industry leaders, and architects around the globe, examining how our community is staying connected, inspired, and proactive about solutions during the current pandemic.

Li Xiang, X+ Living, Shanghai, China

We are doing just fine during this time. A few problems emerged early on, but we figured them out together. Our original plan was to return to the office on February 3rd, but we had to postpone that date and work from home for nearly two months. We took measures to create a safer and more convenient working environment for everyone, and we are now back in the office. None of our projects have been cancelled and we are still working on projects both with past collaborative partners and with new clients.

I know that many people are following the “stay at home” order right now in their respective countries, and I’ve been there before. I know it may seem interesting at first: you can just lie down on the sofa and play mobile phone games all day. But then you start to feel distraught enduring the seemingly endless boredom. Even though people are becoming more dependent on cell phones or other digital devices, they still need somewhere to meet with friends, to enjoy a dinner in a beautiful and elegant restaurant. The demand for experience and sharing is human nature and, as architects, we need to deeply explore into this idea.

Some of the platforms focused specifically on the design industry in China have already made attempts to transform offline activities to online, which is a good way to develop opportunities of connecting people during such a time. But for those of us who run a studio, it’s our obligation to take care of our employees and partners. We can advertise preventive measures and make sure everyone realizes the severity. We need to be prepared for a long campaign, because this is a global crisis, and all of us should make efforts to get through it together. Staying at home can be torturous, but it is truly effective in terms of preventing the spread of the coronavirus within a large crowd. Stay safe and pray for each other. We will make it through.

Liz Ogbu, Oakland, U.S.

I feel like I’m emerging from a triage state. The Bay Area went on “shelter in place” when I had just gotten into the country. I was in Peru doing some research looking at indigenous healing practices, as part of the larger conversation about healing that I’ve been having in my work. To be immersed in that for a week and then come back to shelter in place was a little nuts. It’s…interesting doing community-based works at a time when you can’t actually bring community together!

Normally my projects involve creative placemaking, like taking a site that used to be a power plant and transforming it to benefit the community. Obviously we can’t do that right now, so how do we creatively redeploy the resources we have to be able to serve the immediate need? Not going in and saying, “Let’s be do-gooders,” but rather harnessing the partnerships we’ve been cultivating anyway, asking what is the need right now and how can we best help? You can’t do a project within a community without first building relationships and trust within that group, so that they understand you are not there just transitionally, but to build a better place that can help them have a more productive and thriving future. Beyond redeploying resources, I’ve been checking in with clients before getting into the list of stuff I know we need to do. Asking: How are you, how are your families, how are your communities? They’re even more on the ground so it’s about remembering humanity.

Resumption is not going back to where we were before. We can’t forget what we went through this moment. There’s trauma related to it. We need to ask the question: How can we respond to this? A teaching program that I am part of cancelled our big event for May. Normally, it is focused on design justice and equity issues. Now we are using it to ask: What does that mean in this moment? The people who were already insecure are even more insecure. How do we shift that insecurity that is heightened, but do it in an interesting way. There are other fabrics of communities that have been created based on necessity. How do we harness that? In previous times it was hard to explain, to those of privilege, the severe differences when everything in your life is uncertain and you’re having to scramble to get the basic necessities. The universalities of some of what’s happened during this crisis might make it easier to ask some of those questions. Now, it’s not an unknown memory of what it’s like to feel uncertain, or to feel like your community has become fragmented by things that are not your responsibility or your fault.

An additional part of my mandate will be to remind us of where we were at this point right now, both in terms of what the world looked like and how we felt. With architecture and design professionals, we do a disservice to ourselves, our profession, and the work itself if we say we don’t have any power in the process. We can be the voices that help make things divisible and hold space to bring things up, or be willing to take a risk in pissing off the client or even getting fired. But isn’t it better to be on the right side, rather than just the paid side? As visual makers, we already have the ingrained skill of how to make the invisible visible, so taking things like these memories and figuring out how to make them visible is part of the practice. It could be as simple as a conversation, but it could also be how we design a meeting that allows voices that speak to some of this harm to be present in a way we may not have chosen to before.

When I look at my schedule, I’m usually on a plane one or two times a month, but I’m probably grounded for the summer. Having so much cancelled has opened up a lot of whitespace in my schedule. Once I get past this triage moment, I am actually looking forward to using that time for some longer-term thinking, not so much about where my business should go, but around issues that I don’t normally get to focus on because I am usually pulled into the day-to-day work. I actually think the spaciousness will allow me to dive more deeply into some larger questions which are important to start thinking about now. It’s fascinating how what we think of as community right now has gotten so digital. Space is dangerous because it’s where we meet other people. Public spaces in which we come together in some ways are now filled with the absence of people and with strict rules about how people should engage within them. What role does space have in supporting how we understand coming together physically after this crisis? That’s something worth spending some time thinking about now.

Our community has focused a lot on what our role was following the pandemics of the past. We’ve been getting into city planning and thinking about healthier spaces in terms of ventilation and sanitation. Those are important, but social distancing may still play a part when we come out of these stringent orders. As such, we need to think about the intangible question of rethinking spaces to support communities coming together in safe ways. Architecture sometimes gets sidelined because it’s reactive. Proactively pushing this conversation is important so that we can demonstrate architecture and design are not nice things to have, but essential parts of the conversation about how to live.

Edin Rudic, MKDA, New York City, U.S.

We are still on schedule for projects we deem B.C., Before Corona. Some are on hold, but it’s been very busy, and things are taking longer than usual in terms of communication, operations, and materials. Working on CD sets from a laptop or desktop at home, we’re having to move on one page five or six times to zoom in, so you lose the bigger picture. It’s like a mosaic: you have to keep zooming in and out. But luckily we are good at organizing ourselves and sharing tips, like mirroring laptops to our home TVs–if you have one–which provides for a larger screen. Those frivolous things are coming in handy during these times!

And it’s not only zooming in and out of the drawings, but psychologically zooming in and out, dealing with color palettes and minor tones of colors. You’re listening to the news at the moment and it’s apocalyptic. And then you have to zoom into something about workplace that’s about the color of the wall or the tone of the wood—and you realize that’s part of life and that’s important, because those colors and tones will make an impact on someone’s psychology while they are working.

One thing for me that is super challenging—I’m sure for all of us—is being inspired. Inspiration comes from travel and experiences in life and museums, galleries, and food. In this time, you lose that kind of smell and lighting and sound. Everything is framed by the size of your computer and, for designers, we often cannot design inside of this box. But at the same time inspiration can come from unexpected places: you can evaluate your home, your surroundings, your relationships. You can zoom in on objects around your house, or cooking—things you didn’t have time to evaluate before—and you can find beauty in unexpected places. If you have that kind of gene or whatever it is that wants you to be inspired—if it’s in your blood—you’re going to adapt. What are the things you didn’t notice before? We still have plenty to discover.

The show must go on. You’re creating normalcy in this situation. There’s so much to be thought about in terms of wellness, problem solving in a crisis, creating well-being. There’s a realization that we are vulnerable as a species. We are resetting and rebooting ourselves. In terms of design I think we’re going to have a major issue in technical aspects like safety and building infrastructure. For instance, HVAC will have to change to be localized, so that if someone gets sick, the whole building doesn’t get sick. We’ll have to create zones. Once you have this bug in your head, you become aware of things and that’s not going away. People will want to use push buttons and voice and motion sensors, which are already in place in some bathrooms, but will be extended into places like kitchens as well. This will leave a permanent mark on how we see materials and how we make our selections.

As designers we are working with materials which are tangible goods and then selling big ideas through renderings which are non-tangible goods. As such, we are in a constant flux between the tangible and non-tangible, and it’s very hard. It’s our reality and we have to take advantage of it. A lot of crises have brought new inventions and this is a great time for that. We should be a little more open to mental experimentation. At the same time, we don’t have a linear direction right now. We don’t have a Point-A-to-Point-B because we don’t know the when and how of Point B. We don’t have a goal. Everyone is kind of walking around blindfolded. But as bad as it is, you’re going to discover something in this search of the unknown.

> See our full coverage of COVID-19 and its impact on the A&D industry

ThinkLab, the research division of SANDOW, is gathering information about our industry’s response to COVID-19. Click here if you’d like to participate.

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