Covid, Architecture, Cities and the Future - Thoughts

Posted Apr 30th, 2020 in Current Issues

Covid, Architecture, Cities and the Future - Thoughts
Ian Ellingham, PhD, FRAIC

March 2020

A few hours ago, a telephone call with one of the other members of the Niagara Society of Architects, prompted some reflection.  She said that the members of her firm were all working away at home, with someone going into their office every couple of days to collect the mail.  They were producing and hoped to meet all of their deadlines. All was well.  

I often tell people that organisations should not do anything to make their existing clients start to consider alternatives - they might decide to buy some other product, or that they do not need what you are selling at all.  The Covid virus adventure will likely make everyone reconsider everything.  Does a firm actually need an office- or should they do something else?  Essentially what do we need to conduct our businesses and lives?  What changes might unfold?

Sometimes one's mind has to be prepared to receive ideas and develop insights.  I have been rereading a couple of books relating to the future - neither one new.  One is Deep Future:  The Next 100,000 Years of Life on Earth, by Curt Stager (2011), and Arthur C. Clarke's 3001: The Final Odyssey (1997).  Both contemplate times well into the future - times about which we can only speculate - but we do need to speculate, and perhaps respond with and to reasoned (and reasonable) speculations.  If we can speculate about things1,000 or 100,000 years in the future, it is rational to consider the next ten or twenty years, and any speculation will involve buildings and cities, and how we might come to use them.

The first reasonable change is that many businesses, even big ones, will find they do not need as much office space, something that has been happening for some time.  Another architect friend tells me that reducing office space use for companies and government has been a major part of his business for some years.  It should be remembered that the big modern office building is a relatively recent phenomenon, having emerged in large American cities, in particular Chicago, in the late 1800s, being made possible by the telephone and telegraph, urban rail transportation, elevators and electric lighting.  Before that, sole-use office buildings were rare - with royal palaces containing quite a bit of a government's administration, and office functions usually closely associated with housing.

A couple of years ago, I did some consulting relative to a 1950s high-rise office building, owned and occupied by a large insurance company.  They knew the building was important to the productivity of their staff, but not sure exactly how.  Among the possible physical changes was to redecorate the toilet facilities - obviously last done in the 1970s, when dark brown tile (even on the ceiling) was popular.  Should the cafeteria be redecorated - or perhaps they should change the food offerings?  What I found most interesting though, was that the building seemed empty.  Rather than those myriads of paperpushers and typists busy in older photographs of office buildings, most of the desks were uninhabited.  The salespeople, inspectors, claims-managers, financiers and deal-makers in the insurance business had jobs demanding that they be away from the office for much of the time.  It seemed most of their work was being done in their cars, on the train, or in coffee shops.  

Ordering on-line is now commonplace, with to-the-door delivery fast and reasonably inexpensive, and more people will do it through the Covid interval.  Even grocery products can come that way, although Canada seems a bit behind some other countries in that respect.  The restaurants around here are not serving, but delivering.  Perhaps, after the virus adventure, we may do more of the same - bringing more resources to our homes.  


Although we may find that almost everything can be brought to our door, shopping for food and other things, and restaurants will remain, but increasingly as entertainment.  The issue is that the spaces required may be fewer, and perhaps different.  Again, in our own city centre, the traditional stores - Kresges, Woolworths, clothing, jewellery and shoe stores, have over time disappeared, to be replaced by restaurants, bars, a performing arts centre and a hockey palace.  You don't go there anymore to buy a pair of socks.

Is the big purpose-built office building dead?  I do wonder.  Two near where I live are being turned into condominium apartments.  Alternatives do exist.  In my own downtown neighbourhood, numbers of houses built in the 1920s incorporate an office just off the front door.  The circulation is arranged so someone coming to conduct business does not have to enter the residential areas.  Our house was originally owned by a lawyer, but others were owned by stockbrokers and the managers of nearby manufacturing concerns.  In a proposed apartment complex, I suggested one of the secondary bedrooms in each unit have a door to the corridor - thereby allowing the flexibility to have a formal office to which visitors can come without encountering the dog and the laundry hamper.

It is not that office buildings do not serve purposes.  We know that communications are important in business, and face-to-face is ideal.  For that insurance company, bringing their people together and facilitating communications was an important priority.  I personally despise those multi-person collective phone discussions, in which you have no idea who is speaking, and find they tend not to be very productive.  Meeting places are important, and, again looking into our own main street, there are a couple of thriving coffee shops - people always seem to be there working on their laptops and having discussions.  I frequently find myself at meetings in some of them.  Again, this is not new - coffee shops were major places of business in the 1600s.  We always remember that Lloyd's of London was created in Lloyd's Coffee House., where ship-owners and merchants congregated to do business.

Moreover, cabin-fever can be a reality, and many people may be encountering it during the Covid quarantines.  They need to get out, learn and exchange ideas.  I periodically go to Cambridge (UK) for what my wife calls 'my academic hit', and I can sometimes find it in Toronto, but wouldn't it be great to be able to get it through organisations such as our own architectural society?  Another challenge.  

The Covid process is likely to accelerate some of these changes, whereby more day-to-day business will be done in people's homes, with meetings occurring in smaller locations dedicated to the face-to-face exchange of information between co-workers and with clients and suppliers.  Smaller organisations may increasingly utilise the services of coffee shops.  Shopping will be even less of a functional matter of going out to purchase what a people need, and the entertainment role of shopping (even at the grocery store) will increase.  There is evidence that more recent generations do, in fact, evaluate buildings now on their social/cultural meaning relative to their functionality and this change may be accelerated as a result of the Covid adventure.  Delight will be more important, and architects will be working to create that.  A book exploring architectural delight and how to create it will be appearing soon - Understanding Ugly:  Human Response to Buildings in the Environment, published by the Built Environment Open Forum.

Is this what will happen?  The future is always uncertain, but you can be sure that nothing will be the same again, and like Arthur C. Clarke, start dreaming, speculating and preparing.