In the era of social distancing, large, generous spaces will save us. While digital media and visual design solutions will help us to live part of our life apart

Also in architecture, words can be as heavy as stones. Especially in a time of emergency, with the pandemic reshaping spaces, human relations and life in general. “The danger begins when you use words and their meaning improperly,” says Alfonso Femia, an international architect with roots in Genoa, wedged between the mountains and the sea, but with a generous physical and perceptive relationship between people and architecture. He finds inspiration there in order to think about the post-Covid-19 city. Femia rejects the concept of “social distancing” and prefers a physical distance that does not deny social proximity, as does Ilaria Marelli, followed by a long list of colleagues who have apoken of the need to “design trust.” The sociologist Francesco Morace goes further, with a poetic image to talk about “redesigning spaciousness.”

Generosity will matter

But in concrete terms, how does one design faith and spaciousness? Femia, whose Atelier has created many recent and not-so-recent projects for ‘generous’ spaces – from the transformation of the Frigoriferi Milanesi and Palazzo del Ghiaccio in Milan to the Dallara Academy near Parma, by way of the Docks of Marseille – begins with the state of the art. “The lack of spaciousness is a theme increasingly raised by designers but never tackled by lawmakers. Perhaps, if we had precise standards, this Phase 2 of the pandemic would have been easier.”

Generosity, rather than distance: this is the key term of post-Covid-19 urban space. “After decades, generosity means banning the extreme and perverse ‘drying up’ of space, driven by an economic relationship  that has reduced shared places to a minimum and has merely been a matter of cynical exploitation and poor quality.” In the name of generosity, Femia does not like the ‘defensive’ projects proposed by illustrious colleagues, like the visor by Norman Foster, the personalized masks of Danielle Baskin, and other types of shields circulating on the web these days. “They are fun, perhaps, but nothing more. Plexiglas panels are of dubious value, and they are obscene if we consider the fact that they can harbor the virus for variably long periods of time.” So while schools were closing in Italy, and images arrived from Denmark of kids still in class or romping in the very generous playgrounds of the Tivoli Gardens, at the Copenhagen Zoo or in the Danish National Museum, Femia won two competitions, for a school in Legnago and a research campus at Annecy, France, oriented towards effective social distancing without preventing physical presence.

Speaking of generosity and trust, Massimo Alvisi of the studio Alvisi Kirimoto develops the design idea of tomorrow by starting with the family, “the safest place where each person cars for the others and no one puts their loved ones at risk.

Let’s imagine networking these small nuclei, starting from the apartment building, and let’s try to see them as public assets regulated by agreements between municipalities and private individuals. Balconies have become small states, rooftops plazas for playing, expanding the natural landscape of the city. We can redesign these urban sections, triggering relations between them and those who inhabit them; the work can be incredible and satisfying, valid from the town to the metropolis. A sort of ‘vertical balcony’ to be scaled in the name of rediscovered social contact.”

Updating old ways of thinking (and designing)

Restoring value to the relationship between man and his environment also means updating layout logic that by now is forty years old. It is here, Femia believes, that digital and visual design become allies. “Visual design does not mean simply informing people with signs and images; it also means generating awareness and responsibility. Graphics can be a driver.”

Alessandro Cambi, Francesco Marinelli and Paolo Mezzalama of It’s, a Roman studio active all over Europe, agree. “A material does not necessarily have to be physical: it can also be virtual.” The idea is to develop a dual dimension: “Physical (reduced) and virtual (extended), given the fact that we will live in a variable balance between the two worlds. In each of them, we have to always put human beings and their wellness at the center. We do not have to start over, from scratch: it will suffice to retrieve and apply all the reasoning formulated to date about flexibility into a single, updated vision. For example, to imagine the new habitat in keeping with the principles of the Active House (light, wellness, energy savings), as we are doing for a residential project at EUR in Rome. Or talking about the smart city in a serious way, not with the superficiality that has led to two opposing factions, pro and con, both lacking in content.”

Materials: another key concept

It remains to be seen what material will go into these dreams, the city, the future. But some fixed points are already there. “While the Italian Health Ministry provides only vague indications about the retention of the virus on surfaces, a scientific study conducted by the New England Journal of Medicine show that it lasts longer on plastic and steel,” Femia warns. “Never as in this moment should haste be kept at bay, leaving room for reflection and deeper understanding. The solutions of expansion of hospital facilities – the projects for pods and rapid prefabrication – also have to be evaluated with great caution: units separated from the operative scientific core of hospitals (laboratories and research) have more limits than virtues in situations of emergency.”

"Soft" distancing

An excellent firm in the area of restoration – the Palermo-based Didea – is also focusing on visual design seen as a new surface: the designers are coming to terms with the puzzle of distancing in dining facilities. “Paradoxically, all this could lead to a new aesthetic. It would be interesting not to stop short at the need for safety signage, with the simple use of Plexiglas panels, but to take that as a starting point to achieve pleasant and improved solutions, such as separators between tables that use natural materials like wood or iron, suitable to take on different textures, for interweaving of plants, flowers, fabrics. Besides being effective, safe and visually appealing, they could be used as garment racks and containers, freeing up entrances or corridors that often block the flow of people. Also in the area of lighting design, the lamps could be used as a means of indicating distancing and boundaries.” To protect people with light and nature: this too implies trust and design.


Cover photo by Stefano Rosselli, part of the Coronavirus Milan reportage, 13 March 2020. The images was part of the charity activity 100 Fotografi per Bergamo to support the reanimation and intensive therapy unit of the Papa Giovanni XXII Hospital in Bergamo.