Community by Design

Constructing Shared Spaces

Two decades ago, consumers watched with glee as the pop-up store revolution hit the American market. Little did we know then that we would see the advent of pop-up hospitals and shelters sooner than anyone could imagine.

Today, the urgency to create multifunctional shared spaces that can effectively and efficiently serve communities during normal times and in crises is greater than ever. In this feature, we take a look at what we can learn from the international COVID-19 crisis and how it will alter our approach in designing public places of the future. In the process, we take stock of the collective experience, noting some of the challenges that face emergency services based in community halls, churches, schools, and similar.

In a pre-COVID19 world where human disconnect had almost become a pandemic in itself, seeing people rush to one another’s aid to the extent that we have witnessed in the media over the past few months was probably as unfathomable as the global challenge that has just rocked our world. Far from cutting people off from one another, lockdown and shelter-in-place measures underscored a reignited awareness of our inherent human need for community.

Suddenly, stories about random acts of kindness flooded the internet as communities started reaching out to one another far beyond the hard lines of business as usual in a bid to prevent and alleviate the economic and psychological hardship of those in need during this time of uncertainty.

Redesigning connection
But learning what good there still is in our shared humanity is not the only lesson of the first quarter of 2020. The virus that brought the world to a standstill is forcing us to reconsider how we approach the functionality of buildings such as churches, schools and other public construction. Because, as society changed over the past 50 years, so did our communities and our social spaces — and not always for the better.

The biggest example of this change is evident in churches. Once the epicenter of life in every town and city suburb, central business districts naturally developed around the church as this was where consumer populations were densest. But, as the complexities of faith and a changing attitude toward worship in a modern world swept through communities, the role of the church began to change and even diminish in many places. As many parishes became smaller, school halls and other large communal spaces started serving as places of worship in their free time. In other areas, mega churches mushroomed. These took on the shape of stadiums, exchanging traditional pews and steeples for rock star stages and massive crowds.

While their mammoth size may not be so good for social distancing during a full-house worship session, these stadiums can potentially save lives in more ways than one during times of serious crisis. So can hotels, school halls, traditional churches, and other large public spaces.

Making space for crisis
With travel and technology shrinking the planet to the size of a slightly oversized blue marble, the past decade has also seen many places of worship become multi-faith spaces. In June 2013, Andrew Crompton reported in The Journal of Architecture that, at the time, more than 1400 such spaces existed across Britain alone, and that the numbers in America and Europe already far exceeded this. The challenge with such multi-faith spaces, he mentioned, is that in an effort to not offend any religion, these places were left typically without any distinctive sense of place or presence, design-wise.

While the decoration of such spaces is an important topic, the multifunctional design of such rooms may become even more complex in future. In contrast to classrooms that are meant to help students concentrate, the deliberate design and decoration of places of worship is traditionally aimed at stirring the faithful into a contemplative mood.

They are also typically functional. As mentioned in the book, The Public Face of Architecture – Civic Culture and Public Spaces, edited by Nathan Glazer and Mark Lilla, “One must think of the church, indeed, as one would now think of a ‘community centre’: not too holy to serve as a dining hall for a great festival, as a theatre for a religious play…”

Therefore, multifunctional spaces of worship, education, and gathering deserve to be more closely studied in a post-COVID world to ensure that their primary function and aesthetic traditions are fully honoured and retained while being effectively designed to also support secondary functions during times of crisis. This is especially important in areas where federal and local municipal resources are limited and communities need to be as self-reliant as possible with the help of the private sector.

As the faithful, agnostics and atheists alike all grapple with questions around inclusivity versus exclusivity, interfaith worship in multi-faith spaces, and even the concept of worship altogether, modern-day architects of churches, schools, and other public spaces are challenged to create buildings that help create and support solidarity and community within towns, neighbourhoods, and cities in a way that works for everyone. This is clearly no small task.

Designing multifunctional places of worship involves holding space for diverse sets of liturgies and rituals, such as mandatory group prayers that form part of Jewish and Muslim traditions, for instance — all while accommodating crisis management models and keeping on top of emergency protocol considerations in case of another global health scare. But places of worship are not alone in their complexity. Every public structure that is renovated, rehabilitated, or newly designed poses unique challenges that were not always a consideration prior to COVID-19.

As we know, schools and churches are not the only buildings where people gather. Some cities like San Diego and New York are reported to have seen convention centers and even hotels adapted to support communities during the COVID-19 crisis, with hotels’ existing operating systems proving very welcome in the process of quarantining infected individuals. Many public buildings that were converted for use during the crisis were chosen for being well-appointed and easy to reach. Most had generators that allowed field hospital activities to continue safely without putting any extra demand on the main electricity grid. They also had ample space for pharmacies and laboratories to be set up. Other considerations included providing sufficient and safe space to keep equipment and materials, as well as accommodation for medical staff and the necessity for social distancing.

Technology will no doubt also play an increasingly larger role in creating safer, multipurpose public spaces. So far, authorities like the American Planning Association offer ample online support for Americans to help avoid planners having to resort to the extreme measures such as those madrileños in Spain were faced with when an ice rink in Madrid had to double up as a morgue when it ran out of cold storage for the city’s deceased in March, this year. One thing is certain. Human ingenuity and the need for community will no doubt prevail.

From Here to There

Throughout history, humans have been limited by simple logistics – how to get from here to there? For thousands of years, venturing out of one’s village required braving wild and rugged terrain. Travel was inherently dangerous. Roads were rough and rudimentary, if there were any at all.

September 28, 2020, 4:52 PM EDT