One of the most lasting effects of lockdown is undoubtedly the continued reliance on social distancing. While in Phase 1 of the pandemic the emergency made people adapt with what was immediately at hand, in Phase 2 the forces of design come into play. No longer just adhesive tape on the floor, improvised barriers or sheets of plexiglass. The reflections of designers on these issues have been varied, and for weeks there has been an ongoing debate on the web.
Among the many proposals, we were particularly intrigued by the research conducted by Francesca Lanzavecchia and posted on her Instagram profile. These are not solutions or projects, but a gathering of varied visual references based on observation, as always in the work of this designer from Pavia. We spoke with her about certain passages of this phase of design, represented by the gathering of data, pre-design research, where the components in action are not just those of short-range practicality, but also those associated with our perception of things in the wider sense of the term. The result is a short handbook of reflections on proxemics and social distancing.
Fixed-quota public space The street is the first place in which we come to terms with fixed-quota space. At the end of the 1960s Hans Hollein proposed his Mobile Office, a work environment inside a transparent bubble, an image that returns today with powerful pertinence. If the idea at the time was to experiment with new habitat spaces, thinking about the dialogue between natural and manmade landscape, between settlement and nomadism, today those images open the way for fixed-quota use of public space.
The visionary Bubbles of Archigram or Space Age fashion take on unexpected value as forecasts. “When we cross paths with a person on the street today,” Lanzavecchia says, “we react like magnets with equal polarities, almost generating an opposing magnetic field to push each other away.” So the bubble that preserves our health finds its most spontaneous analogy in the transparency of the micro-habitat.
The universe regulated by an imposed order has also generated images of performative power that goes beyond any artistic fantasy. We are reminded of the Supersuperficie of Superstudio, the idea of a space constructed on Cartesian coordinates by a pattern thanks to which “the focus shifted from three-dimensional architecture to the performances of women and men crossing the planet Earth” (Cristiano Toraldo di Francia). The design of space regulated for distancing can thus be an opportunity for the activation of induced forms of performance, or to organize spontaneous forms.
Extension of the body “The body inhabits the world, creating it through the order of the tools that make it present everywhere, because all people make reference to them, and in them the body is extended,” wrote Umberto Galimberti in his famous essay “il corpo” (feltrinelli). For product designers this is an indispensable foundation: the object as extension of the body and as a means of knowing the spatial context.
Francesca thinks back on many researches in the world of art: from the Bauhaus costumes of Oskar Schlemmer to the human furniture of Erwin Wurm, and the performances of Sissi. Above all, however, she looks at Rebecca Horn. “In her work,” she explains, “I very much appreciate the dualism of creating a cocoon for distancing others, while also welcoming them in particular cases. Thus there is distancing, but also welcome. In her fan-object we see this dualism.”
The extension of the body, the prosthesis, the wearable object as a manifestation of the Self, have always been parts of Lanzavecchia’s work, in the form of fingerstalls like modern-day Daphnes, or a skirt that carries objects, like a wearable suitcase of memories to wear as a garment in the world.
Deprivation The deprivation of freedom of movement creates new proxemics in shared interior spaces as well. Paradoxically, tight space is also at the root of therapies for patients with psychological pathologies. In the work of Lucy McRae this aspect is central and leads to very interesting considerations. In animal proxemics, for example, there is the need to respect the so-called ‘critical distance,’ and aggressive behavior can happen when there is no marking of the limit (Lorenz).
Hence bars and separators are physical limits that project mental limits, and the language of restriction can produce a calming effect. “We are domesticating the dimension of the hospital,” Lanzavecchia comments. “I have always been against this type of assimilation between the medical world and everyday life. But I realize that now we need this imaginary, which makes us feel safer: in the crisis, I trust in science before beauty. Afterwards, there will be a normalization, a need to absorb all this in the complexity of the everyday world.”
New rituals New greetings, tutorials that teach us how and how long to wash our hands, antiseptic gel at entrances as a sign of welcome. Will all this last, and in what form? “There will be a new etiquette that has to be set up, because our behavioral codes are always related to the context. We are culturally social animals, and we will return as soon as possible to physical contact, while in Asia people will still bow to each other and swap business cards. The true question is: how much are we willing to limit ourselves for others, to create this shared choreography? I believe that what will remain with us longest is the fear of surfaces.
In psychological terms, physical contact will be restored as soon as possible, while the fear of contact with surfaces, with inanimate material elements, will persist. Therefore we will have to reconsider the way we open doors, the way we use an ATM, or how we take goods off the shelves at the supermarket. All this can also become an opportunity to learn new relational modes.”