Architecture and coronavirus: how diseases influence the design of homes and cities

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The spread of tuberculosis, spas and the creation of X-rays influenced the entire architectural project of the modernist era. How are our notions of health and the homes we live in? How did epidemics affect the design of our apartments? Will the coronavirus change them? These debates are already taking place in the field of architecture. At this time, any technical architect (in spanish: arquitecto técnico) who is considering a project cannot avoid taking into account the special circumstances that the coronavirus has brought us, and whatever architectural platform (plataforma de arquitectura) he or she approaches, he or she will see how the current situation brought about by the disease reminds us of past times.


The COVID-19 epidemic has locked citizens in their apartments and homes. In March, Spanish citizens were confined to their homes due to the state of alarm decreed by the coronavirus. This confinement, along with the measures that have followed, have forced many to rethink both the urbanistic future of cities and the buildings themselves. Should cities be designed differently to prevent similar epidemics in the future? What is post-coronavirus architecture? What is a city and a healthy home?


The question of how experience gained during the pandemic will affect the design and structure of our cities is not unhelpful. The coronavirus is likely to change our perception of ourselves (body, discipline, lifestyle) and the environment in which we live (city, buildings and homes).


To understand how COVID-19 might affect design, one has to ask how much architecture is related to the disease. After all, there are precedents for how a disease has modified the architecture of people's homes in the past. It is about how tuberculosis influenced the design of apartments and apartments in many cities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.


Sigfried Gidion, the main theorist and promoter of the "architecture of the modern movement", identified three buildings, whose design is inseparable from the "successful spread of modernism". These are the Bauhaus school in Dessau (1926), the unrealized project of the League of Nations building in Geneva (1927) designed by Le Corbusier, and the tuberculosis sanatorium complex in Paimio (1929-1933) by Alvar and Aino Aalto.


The elevation of the tuberculosis sanatorium to the pedestal of modernist architecture is eloquent in itself. The medical center shared a stand with a League of Nations office dedicated to rebuilding the world and an avant-garde school that aims to do the same.


Aalto compared the architecture of the Paimio Sanatorium to a medical instrument. Not only does it create the conditions for the doctors' work and the patients' stay, but it is itself part of the treatment, part of the sanatorium's medical apparatus. Aalto's statement is more than justified if one considers that hygiene, sun and clean air were the main methods of tuberculosis treatment at that time.


Architecture provides this in abundance. The sanatorium is surrounded by a pine forest. Each of the residential floors has access to its own terrace, where patients were supposed to sunbathe and breathe fresh air. The calling card of the sanatorium is the rooftop solarium, the deck of the ship, which rises above the sea of pines.


Alvar and Aino invented and designed the sanatorium down to the last detail, from the architecture to the equipment. This construction makes the design similar to the logic of a medical device, not a building. Among the furniture, the most famous is the Paimio chair, designed to "open the lungs" of patients at rest.


During the last week, the architects have been sharing a questionnaire on social networks where they need to know the building according to their plan. The user is asked to guess the building named among three options. If the Paimio sanatorium was next to the Bauhaus school and the League of Nations building, it would not be so easy to guess which is which. 


The three buildings, which use functional block division, are located on a separate site surrounded by nature and not in the structure of urban development. Despite its ingenuity, the design of the Sanatorio Paimio speaks the common language of modernist architecture.

If we go from plans to facades, interiors, then there are more similarities than differences. The same sterile cleanliness of the interiors, the whiteness of the facades, the orientation towards the sun and nature, the same terraces and solariums.


The similarity between the architecture of the tuberculosis sanatorium, the avant-garde school and the international office does not only lie in the fact that all three projects speak the language of modernism. The architecture of the Paimio Sanatorium is directly determined by ideas about how to treat tuberculosis. The sterility of the interiors, the hospital whiteness of the facades, the abundance of sun and air are a direct response to the doctors' mandate. The same design elements were used by the founding fathers of modernism as a basis for other projects. The architecture of modernism literally follows the precepts of the physicians to build a bright (white and hygienic) and healthy (post-tuberculosis) future.


The architecture of the sanatoriums influenced the project of modernism no less than the industrial buildings of Peter Behrens. The center for the development of sanatoriums was Davos. In 1910 there were twenty-six sanatoriums there. An example of collaboration between doctors and architects is the Schatzalp sanatorium, built between 1899 and 1900 and named after Thomas Mann's "Magic Mountain".


Significantly, the Schatzalp is the first building in Switzerland built of concrete and steel. In addition, Schatzalp was the owner of one of the first flat roofs, according to Corbusier, an indispensable attribute of modernist architecture.


To be fair, it should be noted that Schatzalp's facade is somewhat eclectic. In a modernist way, it can be compared to a ship, but more like a steamer than an ocean liner. The Queen Alexandra Sanatorium, designed by the same architects, is less technologically advanced in terms of design and engineering, but seems much more modern. The horizontal bars of the Queen Alexandra's lodges create an abstract image of architecture ahead of its time, so the anti-tuberculosis sanatoriums became a kind of laboratory of modernism. Here began an experiment on the intersection of architecture and current ideas about medicine. The discoveries of this laboratory were applied by the architects of the "modern movement". In confirmation of this, the words of Ulrich, the protagonist of Robert Musil's novel "Man Without Property": "A modern man is born in a hospital and dies in a hospital, so he should live in a place like a hospital". 


In 1929, Jean Seidman, a pioneer in actinology, the science of the effects of light on the body, patented a "rotating solarium" and a year later built it in the French tourist town of Aix-les-Bains in the Savoy Alps. The idea behind Seidman's innovation was that the solarium rotated behind the sun during the day. At the center of the invention was the control room, and at the sides were glass patient cabins. The moving platform was 25 meters long, 6 meters wide and weighed 80 tons. The solarium was used to treat patients with various forms of rheumatism, dermatitis, tuberculosis, rickets and cancer.


Seidman's "rotating solarium" is a radical example of how architecture and medicine literally tried to turn towards the sun in an effort to overcome tuberculosis. The same ambition forced architects at the turn of the century to expand entire cities.

Four years after the appearance of the Seidman solarium, Athens adopted a new urban planning manifesto developed by Le Corbusier and the CIAM Congress. 


The provisions of the so-called Athenian Charter became the basis for the introduction of modernist ideas in urban planning. In particular, the Charter introduces the principle of functional zoning, there is a division into a residential area, a production area, etc. The main type of modern housing is an apartment building located freely in space; standards of insulation and landscaping are introduced. As a result, the residential blocks were opened, the residential buildings turned towards the sun and sank into the vegetation. The resulting residential landscape is much more reminiscent of the development of the Dessau Sanatorium than of the modern neighborhoods of Paris, London or St. Petersburg.


The famous lawsuit between physician Edith Farnsworth and architect Mies van der Rohe took place in the 1950s. Edith complained that Mies did not design a house for her, but a tuberculosis sanatorium. According to the doctor, it was impossible to live in the house, because it is transparent and everything can be seen as if under an X-ray. Edith Farnsworth's complaints are an anecdote in the history of architecture, but if only she knew how right she was.


In the 1920s, even before moving to the United States, Mies van der Rohe was fascinated by X-rays. The architect even referred to his early work as "skin and bone" architecture. His visionary projects Friedrichstrasse Skyscraper (1919), Glass Skyscraper (1922) lend the aesthetics of X-ray photography directly, skyscrapers gleam from the inside, exposing the skeleton of buildings.


X-rays are an obligatory part of the medical apparatus of anti-tuberculosis sanatoriums. The X-rays allowed us to look inside through clothing and skin. The new type of vision created a new type of imagination that was imported into modernist architecture. The architectural magazines of the 1920s and 1930s filled with X-ray photographs of buildings. Buildings taken at night glow from the inside, exposing their bones.


The clients of the tuberculosis clinics were supposed to ventilate the sick lungs by lying on the couches on the terraces of the sanatorium. The idea that fresh air can overcome disease has been ingrained in architecture since the time of Vitruvius. He wrote that the organization of the city requires the right orientation and location, so that the city in the morning fog does not get "a wind of the poisoned breath of the creatures of the swamps".


The opinions of 19th century doctors and town planners were based on a concept that did not depart from Vitruvius' ideas. Until the discovery of microorganisms, the key theory for the spread of disease was the miasma theory. The miasma is a fever that forms from the decomposition of organic matter. It was presented as a kind of disease cloud that spreads infection.


The idea of "good" and "bad" air is derived directly from the miasma theory. Places where air stagnates and where a cloud of miasma can remain were considered sick. In contrast, well-ventilated spaces and rooms are considered healthy. The dry and fresh air of the Alps was considered the healthiest, thanks to which there was a flourishing of the architecture of the sanatorium in Davos.


The idea of the benefits of fresh air has forced architects and spa doctors to develop a wide variety of balconies, loggias, terraces and solariums. All this diversity has been passed on to the architecture of modernism. If you ask yourself why there are balconies in northern houses, then the answer is to be treated with air baths. The modernists borrowed terraces and solariums, but could not borrow their theme, a tuberculous bedridden patient. New agents were needed for the architecture of public and residential buildings. They were sportsmen. In Alexander Rodchenko's famous series, the roof of the student city of Lefortovo is not inhabited by bedridden tuberculosis patients, but by brave Soviet children.


Sports were integrated into the apartments themselves. The modernist Marcel Breuer provided the bedroom of the director Erwin Piscator with bars on the wall and a punching bag, and in the physics department Hilde Levy also combined a living room and a gymnasium. In the residential town of Weissenhof, built as an exhibition of the achievements of modernism, architect Richard Docker has reserved the roof of his villa for sports.



In 1943, the American microbiologist Zelman Waxman discovered the second antibiotic, streptomycin. It has proven effective in the fight against bacterial infections, particularly tuberculosis. It turned out that there is no scientific basis for treating tuberculosis with sun and air baths. The modernist project to create a healthy architecture was built on the basis, in general, of naive ideas about medicine.


There is a logic in the modernists' "mistake" that seems relevant to understanding what lies ahead. Tuberculosis was fundamental in shaping the design of modern architecture surrounded by nature, sun and light. But this dream existed in the 18th century, in the ideas of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. At the beginning of the project of modernist architecture in Europe, numerous attempts have already been made to unite "city and garden". The tuberculosis did not influence the design so much, but became an argument that allowed the integration of existing ideas in the vision of the future.


It is easy to imagine how COVID-19 will drive the rhetoric of a new round of modernization in the world. Perhaps we, like the early modernists, will find a remedy in what we believe. Total digital, big data, amazon, Netflix, recycling, remote work, yoga on a smartphone, creative economy, neurological self-development. With one pretext or another, all this will be declared the salvation of the epidemic. The epidemic will accelerate the beginning of a new modernity, whatever it may be. The virus is the lubricant that makes the wheels of modern times turn faster. Wrong or not, the need to create new architectural spaces is a fact, what is yet to be discovered is which will be the best and most efficient for the age we are living in.

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