Image: Campus Martius, Giovanni Battista Piranesi, 1762. From Firmin Didot Freres, Paris, 1835-1839. Vol. 10. Scans from www.coe.l.u-tokyo.ac.jp (retrieved from: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Piranesi-10013.jpg)
The intermediate scale
By Flavio Martella, architect Ph. D, founding partner at m²ft architects; Maria Vittoria Tesei, architect, founding partner at m²ft architects.
In the large suburban houses of the United States in the 1980s, one easily imagines the housewife, who, in the absence of her husband keeps herself in shape watching Jane Fonda’s videotapes; or how, in the 1950s, the same woman practices home-schooling for her children. During the pandemic, numerous actions and uses of the house have returned to be common scenes in our modest contemporary urban apartments, which are now more linked to the concept of expanded domesticity in the city and less to the gender.
Houses are rediscovering a certain flexibility and the capacity to change according to the needs: they are at the same time offices, sports arenas, dance schools, gyms for yoga and free body exercises, discos, cinemas, collective living rooms, bars, schools, universities, etc. The house of the pandemic is rediscovered as the total center of human life, in opposition to the and even disappearance of the public space, recalling the model of a suburban house, without however having its size and, above all, without having a figure, the woman, to take care of everything. A house that no longer has the structure and spaces to become completely autonomous, nor even able to completely abandon itself to the urban environment. A model that has not been able to be found prepared neither for this crisis nor for the other recent ones. An house that exists in the limbo between the private and the public, relying on an hypothetical economic and social equilibrium of the world.
But the pandemic abolished public space in an instant, promptly labelling it as dangerous and harmful to health. Parks and squares were fenced off to avoid gatherings of people, all spaces with commercial activities closed, as well as recreational ones, while streets are now quickly crossed, avoiding any form of human contact. The only form of public activity to remain unchanged is that of home deliveries: Glovo, Deliveroo, Amazon, are the new citizenship. Covid- 19 has seen health prioritized, sidelining the old queen, the economy. The mantras of ‘just do it’, of ‘stay hungry, stay foolish’, have been replaced by that of #stayathome. Our world of exteriors is transformed into a world of continuous interiors, as expressed in Piranesi’s Campo Marzio where the city is drawn as a sequence of buildings, without streets, without squares, without facades. A world in which both physical and digital behaviors are confined, manifesting the importance of the former and the need for the latter.
The idea of an empty public space seemed unimaginable in 21st-century societies. In recent years, most of the houses in metropolitan centers have been converted, split and adapted, leveraging more and more the public sphere. According to European Commission statistics, around 35 per cent of urban housing in Europe is small houses, with poorly equipped kitchens, little living and storage space, and many with little natural lighting, without cross ventilation, or even external views – a number that is constantly on the rise. However, because the configuration of these homes relies on their expansion into the urban sphere, they prove
inadequate when public space becomes inaccessible. In the face of the current crisis, their limitations are painfully exposed.
Today, nostalgia invades our little homes, recalling life before quarantine and producing new forms of socialization, solidarity and care that seek to find comfort in the atomized fractions of public space that we hold onto. Balconies and roofs are reimagined as new alternatives to the urban piazza, becoming sites where it is possible to communicate, make new friends, flirt, sing, dance, exercise, all from a ‘safe distance’. People try every way to find a new public dimension, sometimes by literally opening the houses to the outside, transforming the architectural elements of the windows, porches, thresholds, roofs and balconies into new collective devices. Activities that affect the scale of building and the neighborhood, and which have given birth to the creation of new chains of care and communities.
Between the scale of the minimum cell of the house and the total cell of the city, Covid-19 highlights the importance and necessity of the community at a medium scale, especially for that huge part of the metropolitan European population (about 60 per cent according to Eurostat) which no longer reflects the idea of a traditional family unit: people who live alone or in pairs, the elderly, students and young workers among them. For this part of the population it is necessary to define a house as a sum of collective spaces and times starting from a small but central housing nucleus. Places facing outwards, preferably with balconies, with accessible and equipped roofs, with access to collective services, digital devices to enter the virtual world, enough space for internal activities. Places that allow greater vitality in moments of crisis, but which at the same time allow greater resilience, protection and caring of the population by the population itself, avoiding the shadow of social isolation.
While we shouldn’t be designing homes and cities solely for periods of quarantine, this crisis has shed a light on issues that might have been ignored previously, giving them new urgency. The idea of community and the need to share and care have risen in priority. If our cities and our homes are not suitable for these needs in exceptional circumstances, it means they are not strong enough, not resilient enough, not good enough for the more ‘normal’ times we will slowly be getting back to.