Five architects from Lombardy on what the world of architecture can learn from the Covid-19 experience

A Vaccine Against Unpredictability

Paola Pierotti, PPAN
30. March 2020
Domitys, Bergamo (Photo via www.domitys.it)

Planning architecture for emergencies; transforming buildings for temporary needs; rethinking the model of hospitals; reflecting on empty cities to rediscover how design plays an active role in activating social relationships and connections; reconsidering the importance of architecture and the quality of communal spaces; and more.

The Covid-19 emergency has muddled the plans of companies and individuals, with the initial response in the professional world being to reorganize work from the office to WFH: working from home. Between smart working and digitalization, those who have reflected on the situation, who reaffirm the role of architecture for planning and building diverse cities, are not lacking for effective proposals. Five architects from Italy's hard-hit Lombardy region told us what they think the world of architecture can take from the Covid-19 experience.

Mauro Piantelli, De8 Architectural Studio

Learning to transform buildings, plan for and manage impermanence.

"We belong to a generation of people in a continual state of transfer (a term borrowed from a recent exhibit from my photographer friend Michele Nastasi entitled Arabian Transfer on the temporary conditions of the majority of people who live in that region, from Abu Dhabi to Dubai, from Kuwait City to Riyadh, Doha etc.), no longer accustomed to a settled lifestyle. Our homes are designed for living based on a now non-existent model; they are inflexible and difficult to adapt. Even our hospitals, those extremely complex and sophisticated systems, are necessarily rigid projects, sized according to statistical data: mathematics tell us how many people need medical care under normal situations. For economic reasons hospitals are also designed so that patients stay there for as little time as possible.” 

Mauro Piantelli, architect and partner at De8 Architectural Studio in Bergamo, one of the epicenters of Covid-19, starts from this point to reflect on how to plan architecture for emergencies. “We have often seen failed operations managed in emergency situation, where the temporary becomes never-ending (even if the issue was at most temporary), while the architecture is completely lacking. In these tragic times, between the Chinese model of a new hospital in ten days and the Milanese model of converting two abandoned fair pavilions (political controversies aside), I believe that the Milanese model is the most convincing one. Large, neglected, or in any case underutilized, buildings, which are already connected to services (sewage system, water, electricity, gas, and IT), can be used as containers where we can reconfigure the internal space with light and temporary prefabricated modules. This is a flexible, fast and temporary solution.” 

Even though it may sound like an oxymoron, the professional world has come to agree on the idea that emergencies must be planned for: “We should learn how to quickly transform certain buildings, such as sports venues, so that they can serve different purposes in emergency situations, with prefabricated modules that can be ‘connected’ to them as technical-service annexes (additional health care environments, technological centers, kitchens, etc.).”

De8 architetti: Civic Center and Kindergarten in Castel Cerreto (BG) (Photo: Michele Nastasi)

Filippo Taidelli

Rethinking the hospital model, an alternative to the hyper-technological machine.

Filippo Taidelli, the designer of the new Humanitas campus, has joined in on this reflection on the potential of design in the time of the Coronavirus. “This pandemic has stopped our daily productive life in its tracks. We have realized that we were in a submarine, firmly convinced that we were quickly moving forward. Now the submarine has surfaced and we’re sticking our heads out a bit.  We realize that we are vulnerable. We are nature and, as such, vulnerable. The cities where we live have once again become incredibly breathable. We are looking within ourselves and at our environment and many scattered considerations arise, invaluable guidelines for a world that will never be the same again.” 

Taidelli shifts his attention to the surrounding environment while recalling that “in the last century, when it came to designing hospitals, we focused on building large-scale hyper-technological healthcare sites, to increase the cycle of producing goods and patients, but we forgot about humans and the environment to take care of them. This virus also teaches us that what we believed was the model for the hospital is perhaps not really the ideal option. Perhaps it’s a good idea to reconsider the pavilion style hospitals from the past century?” 

In Taidelli’s reflection, there is space both for the role of the architectural profession and for change in the craft: “A stoppage that lasts for a few months for small professional companies, the typical Italian boutiques, will make the wait for recovery difficult. However, not all ills come to harm,” he states. “This epidemic has sped up the process of digitalization in sleepy old Italy and within a week we have managed to apply an effective alternative way to go to school and work remotely.” Not only that, “it has accelerated the hybridization process of the spaces where we live: our home has become more than ever an impromptu office, school, and kindergarten, yet it is still our home. What’s the consequence? We architects have to be ready to invent new places that can flexibly accommodate these changes. There won’t be a lack of a work but we first need to overcome the hurdle.”

Filippo Taidelli Architetto: Humanitas University campus, Milan. (Photo: Andrea Martiradonna)

Paolo Cottino, KCity

Fragile cities and humanity: urban planning for activating relationships.

“We will come out of this situation more aware of the fact that an urban design project is first and foremost something that activates social relationships and connections that build places, give meaning to spaces, and content to containers. The experience that we are going through now,” according to Paolo Cottino, CEO and technical director of KCity, “can and should also change the orientation of our projects, placing priority on the collective space and taking into account three keywords: fragility, flexibility, and happiness.” 

First point: “We are beginning to realize that humanity in general is fragile,” he explains, “which includes inside it an even more fragile component; protecting this fragility is entrusted more than we believed to the behaviors and sensitivities adopted by the majority of the ‘flock’ in daily life.” The theme of flexibility, mentioned by Piantelli and Taidelli, returns to the forefront: “Faced with the unexpected, we will have to conceptualize and organize spaces, making them structurally adaptable to changing needs and turning this adaptive ability into an essential component of design culture.” 

But how can we create a space for happiness? “It’s obvious that the energy required to face the problems — starting with those that seem to be the most intractable — is generated by transforming the instinct for individual preservation into a desire for collective happiness. This same desire that in these days leads us to go out onto our balconies, where we lift our voices and create sounds to make the city live again and reassure ourselves that everything will end up fine.”

ifdesign: NoiVoiLoro headquater, Erba (CO)

Franco Tagliabue Volontè, ifdesign

Small spaces and the capacity to adapt to withstand the crisis.

What lessons can we take from this moment of crisis? How will it change for professionals? “I go a bit against the current”, says Franco Tagliabue Volontè of ifdesign. “After all, in the midst of the tragedy, the Italian model is exacting its small revenge: small sizes (the average structure of Belpaese studios is tiny, let’s say two to five components) and the ability to adapt along the lines of the Italian Theory well described in 2012 by Pier Luigi Nicolin and Nina Bassoli in Lotus 151. For us, very little has changed. We work from home inspired by an amazing landscape instead of with the dim light of a basement. With our limited economic resources we are managing to guarantee our services and pay our few collaborators who we are able to communicate with quite easily.

“The situation is much more serious for large architectural firms and engineering companies. They have devoured the market by selling efficiency, problem solving and hi-tech, which in reality is annihilating thinking. Now they are worried about making claims that they cannot guarantee: that their machinery works the same with smart working and complex networks. Perhaps now even investors, lately enthralled only by those sirens, will realize that an alternative model to the corporate model is able to give better answers. This emergency is putting many of our certainties in crisis, perhaps even these. Wonderful skyscrapers have been built with just a few people and a telephone in hand. Italy is made up of artisans, the same is true in design. This will help us.”

Aerial view of urban renewal project by Stefano Boeri Architetti, Metrogramma, and Inside Outside at site of collapsed bridge in Genoa (Visualization: The Big Picture, courtesy of SBA)

Andrea Boschetti, Metrogramma

Investing in creativity and sustainable urban planning for the future.

“In recent years our profession has been excessively pervaded by self-reference that had nothing to do with the community’s goals. Instead I think that every design action must be considered as something essential. Our profession is no longer incisive, or at the very least not very incisive, in saying how urban environments should be designed, respected and transformed. Our craft seems to have in fact left the responsibility for sweeping visions to others. With the administration of public goods completely lacking,” comments Andrea Boschetti of Metrogramma, “urban studies are also lost, even though, by their very nature, these are the only studies capable of responsibly reflecting on visions of possible futures. 

“Architecture and urban planning have thus taken refuge in one another to survive, gradually detaching themselves from any civic, cultural and social duties that in fact constitute the essence of their own existence. This self-reference has become the problem par excellence of design at all scales and it still greatly afflicts us, as we unfortunately can see these days. Can you imagine how many professions are engaged today in order to rapidly and effectively build emergency healthcare sites!” 

His gaze extends to the future and Boschetti summarizes certain themes, drawing attention to the “concept of safety (in a broad sense) in contemporary cities and their regions” and of the common good. “Creativity”, adds Boschetti, “must once again become the antidote, the vaccine against predictability but also against the unpredictability of the events themselves. In other words, we must define actions and responses in advance for possible critical scenarios. Sustainable urban planning must be the new absolute, indispensable challenge for the survival of tomorrow. This specific and innovative revolution is needed in the methods and approaches to planning at all scales.” 


This article originally appeared as "Cosa può fare e cosa può imparare il mondo dell’architettura dall’esperienza Covid-19" on Italian-Architects. Translation by textosBCN.

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