In 1997, the Orangerie in Kassel dedicated the documenta X to a relatively unknown phenomenon called the internet. Accordingly, exhibitions were spatially organized to facilitate these newly decentralized flows of information and communication everyone was talking about. 15 groups of artists, activists, and critics from across the world organized performances, lectures, workshops and press conferences. I had designed the exibition’s interior spaces to accommodate consisting of flexible walls, platforms, couches, tables and chairs with wheels that could quickly be re-arranged as needed.
The spirit that year was one of simmering upheaval, which Christoph Schlingensief managed to take to an extreme as he sat outside the exhibition hall, perched on a pile of sandbags while screaming “Kill Helmut Kohl!” through a megaphone before he was escorted off the premises in handcuffs.
Crises are unforeseeable. Crises are dealt with in relation to other crises. And crises happen when situations that once seemed perfectly manageable have suddenly gone off the rails.
In 2019, we spoke about the societal impact of real estate in terms of social justice and CO2-neutrality, because we were focused on the two behemoth issues of our time: Climate change and digitalization.
Since then, an additional issue has entered the fore: Just like humans draw on resilience to stay vital and endure hardship, buildings, too, need additional features to help them withstand the challenges that crises such as the recent coronavirus pandemic have caused.
This past year, as we have grappled with the pandemic, both digitalization and decarbonization have been accelerated at an unprecedented pace. That is why, in a post-corona world, buildings will become digitalized and carbon-neutral faster than we may have expected.
Changing a property’s class of use can create crises. Owners of hospitality properties, or those trying to finance or sell them, have been made painfully aware of this as of late.
A building with concrete walls arranged in a 4.55m grid with a ceiling height of 2.70m can hardly be converted into a media agency office at the drop of a hat. Take our project in Frankfurt’s Europaviertel, which was originally meant to be a hotel – had shell construction progressed any further than the basement floors, we would never have been able to make the switch from hospitality to office real estate – we would have been forced to start from scratch.
A building that cannot be reused, either from hospitality to residential, from residential to office or vice versa, cannot be adapted to the challenges of post-corona architecture. That is why having a plan B – and C – has become a crucial aspect of our work as planners and architects.
Use-neutral support structures and adaptable ceiling heights can be vital puzzle pieces of crisis-resistant buildings. 19th century industrial parks are a prime example of this type of flexibility, and the many contemporary loft offices, galleries, production sites, or residential units pay testament to the power that lies in spontaneous reinvention.
Today, simplicity and flexibility yreign supreme when conceptualizing resilient and sustainable buildings.
Less “hardware”, more digital control
For years, I have been grappling with a trend towards increasingly complex and expensive building technology. But smartly designed buildings need less hardware, not more. Fixed service technology is easily susceptible to aging processes, causes high maintenance costs, consumes large amounts of energy, and, accordingly, leads to high levels of CO2 emission. That is why we need to be moving away from fixed service technology towards decentralized and digitalized controlling processes, many of which can be impacted significantly by individual end-users. A very straight-forward example of this in the context of the pandemic is a smart phone reminder to open the windows at regular intervals to ensure for adequate ventilation once oxygen levels have fallen below a certain threshold. What it all boils down to is a simplification of building hardware in addition to the continuous sophistication of software. Similarly, high ceilings, storage mass for thermal stabilization, wide span flat ceilings and high-grade facades with openable windows can provide welcome alternatives to mechanical technology without sacrificing comfort in terms of everyday usage.
What about structural infection control? A look at current developments in healthcare real estate has recently provided some interesting avenues worth exploring. In this increasingly interdisciplinary field, architects, epidemiologists, hygienists, material scientists and house technicians have begun to come up with novel solutions to creating safer hospitals and care facilities. These include modifications to entryways and exits, antimicrobial surfaces, as well as knobs and handles that may be operated using an elbow instead of hands or fingers, and digital steering possibilities. But many of these developments, while scientifically backed, are only now being tested and rolled out. Many need to be framed in terms of cost-benefit considerations, especially when applied to a non-medical context. But building owners and contractors will heed well to use the disruptive energy this pandemic has unleashed to their advantage, especially when it comes to decarbonization and digitalization. Resilient post-corona architecture can be more than an empty promise.
Head Offices a Thing of the Past?
According to a survey by the German Economic Institute, two thirds of German companies do not want to grant their employees more home office days than before the pandemic. This is just one of many indicators showing that German corporations are struggling with the status quo.
But corporations dragging their feet will do little to change the fact that the idea of the head office is already bound to be revolutionized in the years to come. Representational headquarters simply aren’t what they used to be in a time when working independently from home has become commonplace. The future of work will be more efficient, more open, and considerably less centralized. Hot desking and working from home are just two elements of the continuing deterritorialization of office work. Even before the pandemic, scientific studies were able to confirm the positive effects of more autonomous working processes on employee alignment and motivation, a positive work-life balance, and overall well-being.
Wireless technology is perhaps at the forefront or what we are currently witnessing when it comes to the acceleration of digitalization processes: High-quality WIFI technology is a credible alternative to cable-filled cavity floors. Battery technology has been advancing so rapidly that it is no pipe dream to envision not only wireless – and therefore freely movable computers, but also phones and lighting systems. In the post-corona office of the future, rolling desks can easily be arranged for team sessions and equipped with flexible partition walls.
The buildings we design today should still be standing not only 20, but 200 years from now. In order to ensure more durability, planners and architects must harness flexibility, not only in terms of materials used, but also as a tenet of our planning mindset.
In 1997, at the documenta X, we had no concept of smart phones or social media. And though we tried – in so many different ways - to envision the future, in the end, life happens and things change, sometimes in entirely unforeseeable ways.
Despite the many crises the world has seen since 1997, with Covid-19 being perhaps one of the most dramatic, the Orangerie at the Karlsaue in Kassel has since then hosted not only four more documentas, but will hopefully host many more in the course of the years, decades, and centuries to come.