Read Time: 5 min

city architecture has become a punishment in covid19

May 11, 2020

The world is negotiating extremely troubled times. Everyone seems confused, anxious, possibly afraid, perhaps trying to make sense of the perpetual uncertainty of what has just unfolded in front of them, and even more seeing how our societal systems & city architecture are responding to it.

When I began writing the first drafts of this piece in late March, I was in home quarantine, having returned from abroad to my home town. While I was holed up in my room in self-isolation, much has changed around me. Various state governments and the Centre have announced a lockdown till early May, 2020.

The novel Coronavirus that originated last December in Wuhan, China has now spread rapidly in four months. The number of cases till date reached 4,224,721 worldwide and 69,400 cases in India). The virus has killed 285,145, globally as per world meter on coronavirus.

The World Health Organization declared it as ‘pandemic’ on March 11, 2020 on its official twitter handle.

After this, the familiar blame game started between the United States of America and the WHO about their response to this global crisis.

India seems to be slightly ahead of the curve in terms of the number of positive cases as of now given the limitations of our healthcare system. The coronavirus testing rate has been at the centre of the debate. The main opposition party, Congress, has been accusing central govt on the lax testing rate. While some states in India are the forefront in managing the situation, some others are facing unprecedented challenges.

My Quarantine Musing : Deep Dive

My personal experience being in quarantine hasn’t been exactly pleasant, even from a position of relative privilege. Although I am aware of the need for being in isolation and social distancing at this time, yet I began to realise that my mental health and well-being continually took a toll as each day passed staying isolated. I will share few notes where the architect in me attempted to theorise the situation, and how it could potentially have implications about how we conceptualise and contextualize a single space, multiple spatial configurations within the city as a whole.

Photo by Nandhu Kumar from Pexels

How different is our ‘isolated space’ from a prison space (cell)? Why is it that one is restless even inside her/his own home when isolated? Contending that we are social beings and hence need to connect to have our mental health is frankly an oversimplification. I am not creating an unnecessary hyperbole here? We might have to go back in time to think deeper about this.

The Idea of Prison

Prisons have existed and designed by humans since Babylonian times. The Romans used prisons as a form of ‘punishment’ – in spaces such as metal cages or basement dungeons. In Europe, during the middle ages, prisons manifested themselves in fortresses and castles. For the curious readers, the book ‘Discipline and Punish’ by the famous French philosopher Michel Foucault revolutionized western thought on the role of prisons in maintaining power relations within society through dominance by the state over the body and minds of individuals.

Foucault also argued that new forms of technology of dominance emerged in Europe (and elsewhere) between the Middle Ages to modern times. While the early prisons were based upon the idea of violent retribution, the technology has since then shifted towards more silent forms of incarceration and isolation in recent times.

He also drew remarkable similarities between prison spaces, schools (especially the early schools in England built on the Lancaster model), hospitals and military spaces.

A police stands guard near a COVID-19 containment zone in Ramanathapuram, Tamil Nadu on April 27, 2020. Picture courtesy – L. Balachandar

Lockdown, New Form of Incarceration

The whole idea of punishment is based upon the theory of deterrence, which is to control social behaviour through fear and change. In modern times, few changes were seen – various new forms of incarceration have emerged across the globe such as open prisons and home detentions (house arrest) that are usually used as a political tool by the state. In the above context, I have been engaged in re-imagination of the present lockdown situation as the emergence of a new form of incarceration.

A new punitive-ness seems to have emerged here, where the entire civilization and its social systems are in a voluntary ‘self-confinement’. In the absence of freedom to socialize and an uncertain future due to the pandemic, and exacerbated by an unpredictable state (kids born in the 80s and 90s will connect with this, imagine getting showered with affection and getting a couple of scolding from your parents in the same day, how unpredictable are Indian parents, that’s how the state is acting right now!), homes seem to resemble prisons (at least metaphorically).

All due to an invisible micro-organism that holds enough power and seems to be temporarily inducing governmentality within the society. There lie some important things to ponder for scholars in the future post this pandemic.

Lockdown Violations Happenings, Design or Human nature

Firstly, in a society where we have been brought up in a culture of incarceration as the ultimate punishment and shame, it is natural that we will resist it- our brains are wired to get affected by the lockdown, even if we are aware of its benefits.

Lack of awareness is not likely the only reason why we see so many images of people breaking lockdown guidelines; it may also be linked to the mental conditioning and societal structure. And here comes an important governance challenge: Beyond the middle-class fads of taalis/thalis and diyas, how long will people manage to bear the lockdown without any impact on their mental health. Unfortunately, the mental health debate in India still at a very nascent stage.

Current Architecture, Commodification or Belongingness

Secondly, architects might be interested to reimagine residential space designs as important learning from the pandemic. Residential spaces are usually perceived as spaces to relax and be calm, promoting the well-being of individuals and families. But as I mentioned before, this lockdown has shown that residential spaces in their present form of design may induce restlessness if the sense of freedom is taken away temporarily, and more importantly ‘voluntarily’.

This poses a philosophical question related to how we can design spaces where users will not only negotiate the space but also connect more with the materiality of the space to arouse a more sense of belonging with it, as opposed to commodifying it.

I wonder how we can achieve it through design: can an open lay-out solve some of our issues; or conscious choice of materials that have real tangible and intangible value to the users may spark us to appreciate the materiality of our space in our increasingly materialistic urban space.

I do not have solutions, but these are important questions that will likely help us reimagine a collective future where we can promote social and emotional well-being through conscious design solutions.

The New Normal in City Design Has to Emerge to Fight Pandemic

Of one thing I am certain, we must not return to the old normal – full of mindless material accumulation in our residences at the cost of our mental well-being; and endeavour to create a new normal through careful re-imaginations of our spaces and cities.

At the social level, we must re-think our societal structure that is currently built upon the evils of inequity, oppression, society induced guilt and shame-based punishment, that has affected our social well-being deeply. Instead, we must strive to have intellectual debates that can create new structures, new forms of knowledge and technological shifts in the way we understand crime, incarceration and isolation in our society.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

two + six =