Architecture and pandemics

Sam Wood
How has the architecture around us been affected by pandemics over years?

History tells that architecture is not just inspired by imagination and fashions only. Urban planning has been crucial at the forefront of responses to pandemics, as made clear by experts from Kent’s School of Architecture and Planning, Professor Gerald Adler and Professor Gordana Fontana-Giusti. They said:

‘Architecture is a response to society’s needs. Crises, be they manmade or natural, have always had their effect on the form of buildings and cities, albeit with something of a time lag as construction takes some time to organise. The Grenfell fire led to a rethink of claddings, in particular of the retrofit overcladdings that were in vogue from the 1990s onwards.

‘Health pandemics, on the other hand, have had a more nuanced influence. After all, it was not the Plague that caused the rebuilding of London, but the next year’s Great Fire of 1666.

‘Our current condition of isolating to hinder the spread of a virus is nothing new in the practice of architecture, which has always been determined by the management of adversities including epidemics. It is important to note that it is not the pandemic itself, but a society’s response to it that moulds architecture, and the response most notable in history is the measure of isolation.

‘Isolation has a long history as an architectural response to contagions. In the medieval period, leper colonies were built with this express aim. The leper colonies, ‘leprosaria’, ‘lazarettes’, or lazar houses (named after Lazarus the beggar) were isolated islands, or mainland buildings at the edge of major (usually port) cities reportedly first introduced in the Middle-Ages in response to leprosy. Among many quarantine edifices built in the sixteenth and seventeenth century there is one built on an island near Corfu, subsequently named Lazaretto, accompanied by a monastery for prayer and protection.

‘Leprosaria began to appear in the British Isles and in particular in Kent as leprosy became endemic in England from the 11th century till the 14th century. Churches of Kent such as that in the village of Harbledown had hospitals attached to them, as did those in Dover, East Romney, Cinque Ports, Maidstone and numerous others. Here, we see the evidence of the impact of pandemics’ still remains. St. Bartholomew’s Hospital in Rochester was founded in 1078 for lepers; it survived for many centuries until closure in 2016. As a memento of this period of history under, there are the remnants of numerous structures, including a stained-glass depiction of Elias the leprous monk in the Trinity Chapel of Canterbury Cathedral.

‘Preventative responses to pandemics are also present in historical architecture. In the nineteenth century, great cities developed water-based sewage systems as the link to cholera became established. From the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, hospitals in particularly began to be laid out on more rational lines, with finger-like wings so that wards could be naturally ventilated.

‘In the same way as we are indebted to the Venetian introduction of quarantines, we owe the practice of numbering of the houses and the detailed mapping of every building in urban neighbourhoods to the outbreak of plague in Paris in the 18th and 19th centuries.

‘As the beginnings of the modern era came to be, the rationalism and minimum space standards laid down after the Second World War invariably led to hospitals (and indeed all public buildings) being designed to stringent tight-space standards.

‘We will see how the current social distancing regime in buildings and external spaces will play out in building and city layout and in construction financing, where building economics begins with cost per square metre calculations. Interestingly, there has been a tendency in recent years towards “baggy” planning, where excess space is planned into buildings in order to future-proof them against currently unknown needs.

‘Looking forward, we learn from our past. A modern focus of architecture is environmental design, in particular the control of the quality of air and water in our buildings and cities. In any urban design project, architects will need to carefully appraise environmental and health imperatives, where the advantages of sustainable mobility, and  mechanical systems in big edifices are balanced with those of natural means of ventilating, heating and cooling buildings. We are currently seeing the paradox that, during lockdown, atmospheric pollution has significantly decreased due to lack of vehicular movement as we attempt to reduce surface-to-surface, or airborne, viral spread by means of social distancing.

‘The final area of architectural response to pandemics is one of immediacy. Not all projects are lengthy – the Nightingale Hospitals have been opened and some closed, and the response of the design sector that specialises in temporary accommodation, such as camps for displaced persons in times of war or natural disaster, is witness to the speed at which the profession can work in times of crisis. The streets of London and other cities are gradually being taken over by more walkers and cyclists and the potential aim must be that some good practice might remain after the pandemic.’

Professor Gerald Adler is Head of the Kent School of Architecture & Planning. His practice experience has been with Kammerer and Belz in Stuttgart, Georg Heinrichs in Berlin, Burkard Meyer Steiger in Baden, Switzerland, Hampshire County Architects in Winchester, Koichi Nagashima in Tokyo, and Ted Cullinan in London. He has served for many years as an Examiner for the Architects’ Registration Board, for the Royal Institute of British Architects for its prize committees for research and dissertations, and continues to be a Reader for the Queen’s Anniversary prizes for Further and Higher Education.

Professor Gordana Fontana-Giusti is Professor of Architecture and Urban Design at the University of Kent. Her recent research involves study of spaces in maps, prints and drawings and their role in the formation of urban and landscape design. This included the exhibition on Christopher Packe’s Philosophico-Chorographic Chart of East Kent held in Canterbury Cathedral as part of Questions of Space (June 2016) and a book chapter on Albrecht Dürer and Venice published in the volume on Architecture and the Unconscious (2016, Ashgate). 

Fontana-Giusti is a Fellow of Royal Society of Arts and actively collaborates with institutions such as the British Library, RIBA, V&A, Canterbury Heritage Museum, Canterbury Cathedral, Turner Contemporary and others.