Arts & Culture

Busting the Modernist Myth: Reimagining Campus Architecture in the Time of COVID-19

The coronavirus pandemic is changing the way we conceive of the built environment. The modernist platitude of “form follows function” proves to be more compelling than ever in the present moment. However, the pandemic is also revealing the subtle cracks in modernism—that while its sanitized, cold, unfussy, minimalist aesthetic is perfectly functional for a new kind of distanced engagement, a bare, anonymous, modernist space is the last place in which one might want to quarantine. 

In this present age of confinement—in our dorm rooms or off-campus houses—the organization of space and aesthetic assumes a heightened importance. Each detail in each corner of each room becomes more prominent by virtue of the hours we spend just looking at it. The spaces we inhabit during quarantine have a profound impact on how we think, how we study, and how we engage with those we share space with. 

If you live at Tufts, your home (or your dorm room) assumes the dialectic function of being a safe, sanitized space, removed from the ever-present danger of the virus outside, while also being a social space, one you coinhabit with the people you inevitably socialize most with. Home in the time of COVID-19, especially on a college campus, blurs the boundaries between public and private, social and domestic, so much so that your wall decor is displayed to your classmates and professors on Zoom, and acoustic divisions within your house become as important as physical ones. While the pandemic is reshaping the way we think about space,both domestic and public, a reconceptualization of the built environment also has the potential to revive campus culture and the social engagement that Tufts thrives on.

Architecture and form reflect the anxieties of the present moment. Transformations in architectural aesthetic have almost always occurred in response to the social, political, and, notably, medical needs of the day. In the 1850s, Georges-Eugène Haussmann demolished much of Paris’s congested, unplanned neighborhoods in favor of expansive boulevards and an excess of green space due to the widespread fear of contagion following the cholera epidemic in 1832. Repeated cholera outbreaks, which took nearly 10,000 lives in London, led to the design of the city’s elaborate drainage system by Joseph Bazalgette in 1870. 

Through the 20th century, the logic of modernism developed in tandem with the onset of diseases like tuberculosis and cholera. Architects such as Hugo Aalvar Henrik Aalto responded to the fear of disease by designing spaces that would aid in curing patients—large, bare rooms with white walls for calmness, clean metal furnishing, heating directed towards one’s feet, and large windows that could let in sunlight (which was believed to kill tuberculosis germs). This minimalist aesthetic, first solely used in hospitals, was then adopted by some of the most influential modernist architects, including Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe, in homes, offices, and public spaces. 

Professor Diana Martinez of the Tufts Architectural Studies Department discussed how the hospital, for many architectural historians, is considered the “locus classicus” (the authoritative, canonical style) of modern architectural space. “In the nineteenth century, when germ theory was not yet a scientific certainty, and many scientists still believed diseases like cholera and chlamydia were spread by ‘miasma’—essentially poisoned air, hospitals were designed in a way to maximize air circulation.” 

Discussing the role of architecture in managing the spread of disease, especially through airflow, she said, “We’ve become so dependent on forced air systems that it’s almost impossible for us to even imagine hospitals designed to maximize the circulation of fresh air. But that is what drove the architecture of hospitals in nineteenth century England and France. I hope that COVID-19 has taught us that while the ‘miasma’ theory of infection has been disproven, that disease can still spread through the air, and that fresh air in any case is nice to have flowing through space. An additional benefit is that this is far better for the environment!”

Our public spaces have had to be reimagined to serve a dual, contradictory function—on one hand, they serve to recreate a sense of normalcy on campus, and on the other, they constantly remind people to stay cautious. A little attention to detail when walking across the academic quad to class or through the Campus Center to grab a coffee allows you to notice the seamless yet effective spatial changes Tufts has made in response to the pandemic. It is here that we notice the tension posed by modernism—while bare, open, sanitized spaces are essential to curbing the spread of disease, the modernist logic of “less is more” needs to be radically reimagined in order to make spaces inviting, intimate, and personalized. 

An attempt has been made to recreate a sense of “normal” social interaction through the revitalizing of our green spaces. From the bright Adirondack chairs on the President’s Lawn and outside each residential building to the multicolored Tufts blankets distributed to students upon arrival, Tufts is encouraging a new “normal” outdoors—and is using the aesthetic motif of color to do so. 

“When you cannot completely reinvent a new space, you can change the way it’s perceived by how you reconfigure and highlight it. An environment shapes people, just as much as they shape it. And so, a central part of our campus life continues to live on, through an appreciation of nature. Our green spaces are more valuable to us than ever before because they are now our safe spaces,” said Sara Herrera, a sophomore at Tufts majoring in Architectural Studies.

Similarly, in response to the pandemic, the street has also been revitalized as a space of safe gathering and socializing. Davis Square is hardly recognizable—its urban landscape has been reconfigured to mimic the European street model. Like Barcelona’s La Rambla, restaurants and bars now rely on sprawling outdoor seating and streets cordoned off for pedestrian-only access. Cafés and diners that usually depend on their dingy, retro booth aesthetic have now attempted to recreate their charm outdoors with temporary, log cabin-esque wooden kiosks (see Diesel Cafe, for instance). 

While the redesigning of public space has recreated a sense of normalcy, it also serves as a life-size infographic that constantly reminds us of the responsibility we have to each other. Spatial design can be used to create a visual representation of pandemic regulations to make changing our habits of interaction easier. One of the more obvious changes to our common spaces is the installation of glass barriers in dining facilities and on-campus cafés. 

“While the use of such divisions comes from the need to reduce the spread of COVID-19, this type of reconfiguration of space was also chosen in part to convey a message about the new campus culture. As we come in contact with carefully protected staff on campus, this jarring interaction reminds students that others are relying on their decisions to stay healthy,” said Herrera. Similarly, the one-way traffic plan through the Campus Center acts as a reminder to avoid large crowds and improve efficient mobility. Herrera commented, “These methods of mobility were being increasingly implemented in modern supermarkets to regulate traffic flow. If one thing may stick around, it is these new crowd commands.” 

While the increased usage of green space, street space, and the simple act of opening our windows have served as  temporary solutions to the crisis of public life in the time of COVID-19, the onset of New England winter brings about a whole new set of challenges. Architectural historian and critic Rayner Banham, in his 1965 essay “A Home is not a House,” introduced the idea of the “environment-bubble,” a portable, inflatable, membrane-esque, air-conditioned bubble that ran on advanced technology and could be easily deployed when needed. As Professor Martinez described, “It’s one step beyond the charm of the brightly colored Adirondack chairs we’re seeing on campus these days.” Banham’s pneumatic design may not be the solution to public life in the time of COVID-19, but his thought experiment indicates a potential for radically new forms of spatial innovation. “I enjoy thinking about the possibilities of experiments in COVID winter living—more soups, extreme layering, and lower carbon footprints,” said Professor Martinez. 

While the University has responded to pandemic needs with efficient solutions such as plexiglass and stickers to demarcate six-feet spaces, it is worth noting that our public spaces only fulfill the functional aspects of design thinking. But if the pandemic is far from over, what can Tufts do to make our public spaces more enjoyable, especially at the onset of winter?

From the reconfiguration of classroom sizes to reduced indoor seating at The Sink to the building of temporary quarantine facilities on the tennis courts, the pandemic has busted the modernist myth of Bauhaus universalism and an architecture of permanence. In a world simultaneously plagued by crises of disease and climate change, a new form of urbanism—one that is tactical, impermanent, dynamic, iterative, low-cost, and ephemeral—must take its place. On campus, it also must be a bottom-up urbanism that responds to the changing needs of students, faculty, and staff. The modernist paradigm that governs our aesthetic sensibility must be subverted in order to make spaces sterile yet intimate. 

Herrera concluded, “The demands of the student body will always be present on campus; how we organize and prepare for these needs continues to be a challenge for our university.” A post-pandemic world may allow us to think about and appreciate space, not just as backdrop, but as an essential tool to help navigate and adapt to an ever-changing, dynamic world.