New York City’s Javits Center transformed into a 1,200-bed field hospital

I just read an interview with Geoff Manaugh and Nicola Twilley about their new book on the architecture and history of quarantine, coincidentally due out in time for this current pandemic. Following on a Storefront for Art and Architecture show that opened 10 years ago called Landscapes of Quarantine, the conversation brought up some of the enduring patterns in quarantine architecture and connected with my interest in how buildings are adapted on short notice and how they learn over time. As my attention turns from absorbing the constant stream of COVID related news to trying to understand it in a wider spatial and temporal context, I found parts of this interview especially fascinating as they relate to the spontaneous re-purposing and modification of buildings over time. I’m looking forward to the book and I’ve pulled out a few conversation highlights below.

Twilley: You can’t build an entire separate infrastructure to sit there empty in case of a pandemic, but you can build a shadow pandemic architecture into your existing architecture by thinking through your needs. Can you mandate that these large structures are transformable?

Alluding to a certain typology of quarantine architecture that reappears throughout the centuries, the interview goes on to discuss how, in our current global pandemic, certain well known architectural affordances and building systems could go further and create better circumstances for deploying the infrastructure of the “shadow pandemic architecture” Nicola Twilley spoke of. The interview goes on to discuss the considerations of public health conscious design that could be speculatively built into large public buildings.

Twilley: The capability is there and so thinking about the ins, outs, drop-off, pickup—building that into the design of the conference center from the start would have been the really smart thing.

Manaugh: Thinking about things like recessed or sub-floor electrical outlets for setting up individual treatment bays or even plumbing, so if you wanted to have hand-washing facilities, you could just tap into a previously unused parallel plumbing system that would be underneath the floor.

This all gets me thinking of the importance of acknowledging, both in building sector and in wider society, exactly how buildings learn and adapt over time. Considering how large public buildings are being repurposed as field hospitals, we can see that the level of building and building system adaptability needed to swiftly turn a gym into a hospital, requires adaptability that goes beyond the surface deep interventions involved in setting up more routine events and trade shows. All across the world at a moment’s notice, gyms, ballrooms and church halls are becoming hospitals — the most complex building type of all. I see this deployment of the shadow architecture as an essential feature of resiliency. And I should emphasize, the design and building system allowances that grant future spatial flexibility and adaptability aren’t new, they are however largely missing from our public spaces at exactly the time when they are needed most. Designing a building with a high degree of flexibility isn’t a technological feat, rather it is a political one. Let’s consider the future of our current buildings even before we have to. We can’t know what crisis comes next, but if we can adapt our buildings without major work, we can be certain that our response will come in time to meet the needs of society.

The full interview can be read here.

Of related interest the American Institute of Architects has now released a Go/ No Go Preparedness Evaluation Tool for helping non healthcare design professionals determine if a building is suitable for re-purposing as an emergency healthcare facility. The list of building attributes sought provides some good indications about baseline building attributes that would help a building shift programs in an emergency situation.