#5: Luca de Stefano on...Urban Design in the Context of Pandemics

What was the idea was behind Non-Architecture?

In 2014, at a press conference about his design for the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Frank Gehry - the prototype of the ‘starchitect’ – said to a journalist, “98% of what's built and designed today is pure shit. Some of us – the 2% - do something meaningful and it's good architecture. Leave us alone.” Marco Mattia Cristofori (the other co-founder of Non-Architecture) and I were architecture students at the time, and we found this dogmatic. Gehry was saying, “I know what architecture is, it's a discipline, and I decide what fits into it.” Like every young designer out there, we wanted to change the world. So, we decided: if want to create something new, we need to open up architecture to other approaches beyond Gehry’s 2%. We said: let’s design a framework for the 98% to come up with their own ideas and enable them to rediscover what their profession could be. We believed that our collective impact could be much bigger than one guy designing beautiful museums. And that was how Non-Architecture was born.

Can you briefly explain the Non-Architecture Research ecosystem concept? 

We started doing architecture competitions because it’s a familiar way to gamify a research process for designers and architects. At the end of our first three-year competition period, we decided to add a degree of complexity by integrating more pressing contemporary issues. This was how we designed the research ecosystem. The idea is to have a new theme every four months for the next three years. Within each theme, there will be different competitions addressing the theme from different angles. 

At first, we designed the framework around nine themes related to the UN sustainable development goals. We framed them within a circle, acknowledging their overlaps, because designing an energy-efficient building is not enough, if you don’t address the social, economic, cultural, and so on, aspects of sustainability too. We rushed last minute to add a new theme  - Theme Zero: Pandemic Society - for the COVID-19 outbreak because we felt we had to address it.

The Theme Zero competitions offer a good example of how we work. There are 3 competitions within this theme: first, a 48-hour supermarket floor plan and then two long-term competitions ending in August: “healing: alternative designs for quarantine in cities” and “social distancing housing block”. So, on the one hand, we offer at least one very broad concept and, on the other, one or two more specific ones. The most important thing is that it’s always a game. 

We put a lot of time and effort into framing the right question and deciding how detailed we should make the competition briefs. But, by and large, we define some basic parameters and then leave it up to participants to judge what's important for their own concept. This way, people come up with things we didn't consider. That's the beauty of keeping it open and collaborating so intensively with our community.  

Can you tell us a bit more about Theme Zero: Pandemic Society?

The consequences of the pandemic are social, cultural, economic etc. - it touches upon all the other themes we have – so we felt it deserved its own theme. With regards to the framing of the theme, we chose “pandemic” because it doesn't have to be limited to just COVID-19 and “society” because we are interested in how people modify their own living environment in reaction to societal changes. 

What is the relationship between urban design and the built environment and pandemics, for you?

There are so many layers. We could reflect upon how street profile or urban density affects the pandemic. The way we live is hugely related. If we think about how much we used to move around, that already reflects a lot. Now, we need to rethink mobility, how dense the urban environment is – and, therefore, how much space there is for everyone - and the way households are organized. All of our social relations are affected by the pandemic. Countries like Spain or Italy, where there is a very intense social exchange between different generations, seem to be more affected than the Northern countries, where normally there is a “better” segmentation between ages. These are only some of the areas affected.

What kind of urban design trends are you seeing arising from the 48-hour (supermarket) floor plan competition? 

The supermarket is an interesting place to redesign in the context of a pandemic because of society’s radically changed priorities. During “normality”, supermarkets are designed to optimise space: you make sure there is no daylight coming in so that people don't realise time is passing, and you organize everything to make customers spend more. In the context of a pandemic, this logic is turned on its head and I noticed that some of the participants struggled with letting the old typology go in a way. Some simply readapted what's already there, making the aisles a bit larger or putting disinfectant at the entrances, for instance.

But many others really drastically rethought what a supermarket actually is. It could be a labyrinth where you access the space one by one; it could be a crazy space where curves are really important because in an orthogonal space, colliding with others is much easier. I was also amazed by the amount of people who put parks into the supermarket. But, of course, if the supermarket is the only place you can go (as was the case in much of Europe during lockdown), you put green space into it! 

How will the winning designs from each competition will be used? 

During the first three-year phase, we really wanted to work with companies, because we thought that changing the way companies work could have a big impact. But then we realised that companies are very slow machines - especially the big ones – and are often two steps behind the curve. Now, we work in partnership with organisations like yours (EUKN), who are quick, agile, and already working on related topics. In this sense, our impact comes from the creativity that emerges from speed and independence. The winning designs don’t have contracts to be implemented but they have cultural value and have the potential to inspire designers and professionals all around the world. The aim is to share the content with a lot of people at the end of the process without involving too many people at the beginning, otherwise we compromise the results.

What is your personal vision for a post COVID urban future?

From my personal point of view, I can really see two aspects of our lives changing drastically. First, I think we will reduce how much we move around, both locally – for example, our commutes to work - and also on a larger scale – in terms of our long-haul flights for business and holidays. Hopefully, this will also present a great opportunity to reduce our environmental impact. The second aspect is related to the first but is more personal: the social bonds we create in a post-Covid environment. For example, my family used to be one flight away - I used to go to Italy every few months and I always knew that I could just buy a flight last-minute and be there in three hours. Now, that's not the case. And it might not be the case in the future. We just don’t know. For this reason, I expect that we will begin to reconsider where we want to be and who we want to be with. It might sound a bit cheesy or poetic but, in a way, I think that's the biggest lesson we have to learn here.

My biggest fear is that we'll go back to normality too quickly. Obviously, I hope that the whole pandemic is contained and there are no further casualties. But, at the same time, this is a great opportunity to disrupt normality. Look at cities all around Europe – like Paris – who are launching new smart plans and creating emergency bike lanes, and so on. We have to use this disruption to push forward sustainability. Otherwise, that’s it, we’ve lost our biggest occasion to save the world and give everyone a better chance at living a decent life! We cannot miss this opportunity. It's our responsibility - especially as place-makers and designers - to take advantage of it.