Cathleen McGuigan:
the state of design during COVID

Cathleen McGuigan is editor in chief of Architectural Record, the leading architecture publication in the US. She previously was architecture critic and arts editor at Newsweek, and has more than three decades of cultural journalism experience, with work published in The New York Times Magazine, Smithsonian, Harper’s Bazaar, and Rolling Stone. Cathleen has won many awards and has initiated many justice projects under the purview of AR, including a leadership award for women in architecture.

It’s fascinating and sobering to hear what these Loeb colleagues of ours are really doing on the front lines. I’m a journalist; that means I’m not a doer so much as an observer.  My magazine, Architectural Record, is known for publishing the best architecture of the day for an audience of professionals. But I also see our job as reporting on a wide range of social and civic concerns that are central–or should be central–to our readers in architecture and others in the design field.

The coronavirus crisis has been central to our online daily news coverage for weeks, as it is for every media outlet. And today, I just want to make three points about that, from our perspective at Record.

First, of course, is there is no minimizing the devastating loss of life around the globe—and that has even touched our magazine with the death of our contributing editor, Michael Sorkin, who died of COVID in late March. He was one of the most brilliant architecture critics writing today–super progressive–who spoke for the participation of all communities in the design of our cities and the public realm. He also influenced a generation of students as a professor of urban studies, so the silencing of his voice is a huge loss.

Then there is the loss of livelihoods–I always think of architects as the canaries in the coal mine–the first to be laid off at the slightest wobble of the economy­–and this is not a wobble. The data people are calling the crash of the design and construction sectors an unprecedented plunge, except for certain building types like healthcare, infrastructure and in some places affordable housing. And it is not just about the job losses that have already started but the possible loss of many of the next generation of architects and urbanists whom we really need to help shape our future.

Of course this is not a typical cyclical recession but the collateral damage of a tragic global catastrophe–a moment, it seems to me, when Mother Nature is reminding us humans, in a very dark and cruel way, who really is the boss of our planet.

But my second point today I hope is more heartening, and that is how we are seeing architects and designers joining all kinds of other volunteers in responding to the COVID crisis in any way they can, no matter how small, from 3-D printing thousands of masks or face shields, to retrofitting hospitals to handle the surge in patients, to helping design makeshift facilities with the proper air circulation to avoid contagion.

One response I really admire is the development of a COVID patient isolation hood, designed in a collaboration led by the architect Eric Höweler, who teaches at the GSD, with a doctor from Mass General, along with an industrial designer and fabrication specialist at Harvard and about 100 other architects and engineers across the country. They were able to quickly pool their ideas, fabricate, and test them to create two versions of a flexible, lightweight shell that fits over the top half of any size bed, even in crowded hospital conditions. It allows doctors to put just their arms inside to work with patients with breathing tubes and respirators, but with a radically reduced risk of infection to themselves. Really cool–you can see it on our website.

The third point I want to make is about this kind of collaborative effort of imagination and diligence which we need more than ever.

The Loeb Fellowship of course, has always been a magnet for architects and other designers who work far outside the conventional box of practice, as we’ve just heard earlier: Brett, Samuel and Deanna all trained as architects.

And the COVID crisis is potentially an extraordinary opportunity for all kinds of professionals–and maybe especially those nascent practitioners who aren’t going to get jobs now at Gensler or SOM and will be looking for other work–to collaborate on what is the biggest project in front of us. And that is reshaping our world and our cities, and rethinking our priorities going forward.

Speculation about what’s next, post pandemic, began early. Online, the site Politico began asking various thinkers what they saw ahead, as early as March 19th, when there were only about a quarter million confirmed cases of the virus worldwide, and deaths here in the U.S. were still in the hundreds. One perspective, from the sociologist Eric Klinenberg, went like this: “The coronavirus pandemic marks the end of our romance with market society and hyper-individualism…When this ends, we will reorient our politics and make substantial new investments in public good–for health, especially–and public services.”

Let’s hope he is right. In the five weeks since that post appeared we are in so much deeper, with the virus beginning a vicious invasion of countries in the southern hemisphere with far fewer resources than we have. Yet here, the pandemic has also exposed holes in our social fabric even worse than many have acknowledged, particularly in the gross inequities in health care and basic economic security.

We did an interview at Record with the architect Kimberly Dowdell last week, who is the president of the National Organization of Minority Architects, about the disproportionate coronavirus deaths in communities of color. In her hometown of Chicago, 72 percent of those dead from the virus are African American, who make up only a third of the city’s population, and there are similar figures coming from other cities. Dowdell called it a problem not of physical design, but of policy design.

Yet policy and design intersect everywhere, and there is vast potential for design thinkers to challenge existing norms and push for the essential changes to health care, housing, transportation and what our cities are going to be like to live in and work in.  How can we design better public space? How can we keep more streets free of cars, for pedestrians, as they are experimenting with in Milan and in Oakland, California? And how can we advance the agenda for sustainability and reduce carbon, when we will face paradoxical pressures post-pandemic, when people may return to their cars rather than take mass transit or may try to move out of dense cities, and thereby expand their carbon footprint.

These are overwhelming questions, but what an opportunity to rethink the physical world and change the social contract. Maybe seeing a silver lining in this disaster is too idealistic, but idealism against the odds has always been a contagious condition among Loeb Fellows.