Should we be surprised that the lockdowns have caused an alarming rise in mental illness across all generations of our society? Is this an outcome of the lack of human interaction that we crave or is there more? Why is it that Covid outbreaks have hit more deprived urban communities harder than other neighbourhoods? Could this be due to the connection between the paucity of built environments which mankind has delivered during the mass urbanisation experienced over the last century to cope with population growth and migration to cities? It is not easy to identify a mass housing project of the twentieth century that provdes a truly enjoyable, sensory stimulating and healthy environment. The Modern Movement placed function before form; the function that it seems to have forgotten was human emotion. “A thing of beauty is a joy forever”; or is that too romantic to hope for? Cities, their spaces and buildings achieved this vision in the past.
We are aware that interaction with nature provides benefits for mental health. Medics advise us that a stroll in the park or walk in the woods is good for both our physical and mental health. Movement and a healthy diet help the constitution of mind and body; the two are inseparable. Confinement steals connection to fresh air, open green space and the natural world. Governments and the press have used fear of this unknown viral enemy to force behavioural change. Whilst this may appear necessary, fear and isolation exacerbate mental illness and depression. Even before Covid-19 struck the planet’s population, loneliness was the greatest cause of depression amongst the elderly.
As movements in art and architecture evolve there can be no surprise at the twentieth century reaction to the excesses of Victorian exhuberant decoration. The machine aesthetic of the Bauhaus led by Walter Gropius created many elegant, simplified forms and practical buildings. Regrettably, it provided the potential for mass adoption for inexpensive “shoe box” block buildings in the hands of less inspired architects and politicians eager to house the legion of urban dispossessed and returning veterans post WW11.
Le Corbusier was one of the most influential and plagiarised of twentieth century architects. Again, capable of individual buildings of dramatic individuality in use, style and form. The Villa Savoye and Ronchamp are sublime examples of his craft. The Unité d’habitation in Marseille was easier to copy and get wrong. The huge block integrated 337 generous duplex apartments with shops [ even a bookshop], restaurant, school, hotel, rooftop gallery, running track and toddlers paddling pool. It has now become the popular residence of choice for the professional middle classes. Unfortunately, its appreviated, mean, monotonous, single use form was copied the world over as an inexpensive solution to house the masses. So many of those projects became the socially deprived ghettos to the shame and malaise of developed wealthy cities. These developments still exist and are now home to the most widespread contagion of Covid-19 and the mental illness that envelopes their populations.
The most notorious failure of this political commercialisation of mass slab block projects was Pruit-Igoe in St. Louis. It lasted just 25 years before its much broadcast explosive demolition in 1977. The economic and human consequences of its construction rendered it a devastatingly expensive, unsustainable disaster, not an economic social housing solution.
Le Corbusier’s urban design utopian vision of Le Ville Radieuse now conjure an alternative dystopian future akin to Ridley Scott’s film “Blade Runner”; placemaking of government control, environmental destruction and loss of the individual. In 1943, there was heated debate in NYC over the redevelopment of the 72 Gas House acres of the Lower East Side, especially over the proposed high density. It emerged as perhaps the most successful realisation of “Corb’s” vision. Stuyvesant Town has 8755 generous apartments in 110 red brick cruciform repetitive 12 and 13 storey blocks. 75% is open green space with separation between pedestrians and cars. Its plentiful wide walkways through prolific landscaping make it the most walkable inhabited quarter of Manhattan island. The high levels of spatial design, maintenance, management and hence security make “Stuy Town” a popular and sought after place to live. That is in spite of the potentially monotonous repetition of the block form and material. It is the quality and generosity of the fluid space between the buildings that make this an exemplar of placemaking at a mass scale. Perhaps it is not the model that was at fault, rather the exploitation of the idea through false economy and inadequate management. The early administration caused more political fury over racial discrimination until the 1960s when tenancies became open to people of all colours.
The issue for us now is to learn from where the model has gone wrong and why residents are hit by higher Covid mortality, dispiriting levels of mental illness and entrapment. Even without confinement, their situations have become inescapable. As art and architecture have become increasingly conceptual and cerebral, it seems we lack the vocabulary to define, comment or critique the difference between beautiful or ugly, worthwhile or irrelevant. Cities around the world have mostly become hard-featured, impersonal or dominated by ego icons. Workplaces have been efficient before life enhancing, housing mere product, units not homes. Suburbs and new housing estates are mean, cheaply put together and land hungry. Orange concrete tile pitched roofs and bolt on porches may fool planning officers and commitees under the guise of “traditional” design; Philip Webb and William Morris must be turning in their graves.
One hope is the “Well” accreditation that is gaining traction as a system of measuring, certifying and monitoring features of the built environment. It was originally developed as a programme for commercial and institutional office buildings as an holistic assessment of the performance and operation of the “wellness” amenity for occupants. It covers issues of thermal and acoustic performance and control, quality of light, air and water much as the widely adopted BREEAM scoring of building sustainability. “Well” introduces assessment of operational support of comfort, physical and mental fitness and nourishment. The accreditation system is now piloting residential, retail, restaurant and educational projects.
Covid-19 is here for a reason; it should be an opportunity to wake up and rethink many aspects of how, why and where we plan for the future of life, cities and the planet.