Imagining the Post-Pandemic City
At this stage, no one knows the ultimate impact or toll that the Global Coronavirus Pandemic will have on our society. Early optimism that the pandemic could lead to a Great Reset – steering our economic and societal systems towards fairer outcomes and harnessing digital innovations towards public good, is giving way to a realization that the opposite is just as likely to manifest. Mid pandemic, a Darwinian scenario has already emerged where Big Tech and other business titans are thriving at the expense of individuals and small businesses. While the business elites reaped the rewards of a record stock market recovery and resurgence in 2020, the effects of the pandemic continue to expose and intensify economic, social, and racial inequities for many people worldwide.
WHAT WILL HAPPEN TO ALL THE EMPTY OFFICE BUILDINGS AND HOTELS?
In collaboration with WORKSHOP ARCHITECTURE in Toronto, collages were produced to respond and elaborate upon this New York Times article about how to repurpose vacant real estate in large urban centers.
IMAGINING THE POST-PANDEMIC CITY : A COLLAGE PROJECT
The collage project illustrates ideas about social equity, sustainability, and technology, while joining the ongoing public dialogue about adaptive re-use of high-rise structures in large urban centers. To envision the Post-Covid city, architects, artists, planners, developers, policy makers, tech companies and communities will also need to reconsider the intersection of the physical and the digital worlds, and ways that Big Tech can contribute to resiliency in the recovery, and beyond.
ANALOG PLEASURES, 2077
This collage depicts a domestic downtown interior in the year 2077. Retrofitted from a former office tower, the unit has a double height space inspired by Le Corbusier’s Unité d'Habitation, and features large operable screened windows for improved ventilation and air-exchange. The year is a reference to Cyperpunk 2077, the much-maligned video game which was released to consumers in late 2020 amidst hype and fanfare, only to be recalled weeks later due to technological glitches and faulty programming. many gaming fans were highly disappointed and had to seek alternative indoor entertainment options.
In this scene, the characters are actively engaged in analog pursuits that are thousands of years old such as yoga, life drawing, painting, weaving, reading, guitar playing, kimchee making, hanging out with pets, and playing with building blocks and soccer balls. Despite the myriad advances in technology, the wheel (invented in 3500 B.C.) endures as one of humankind’s most significant inventions.
While digital innovation is not absent from this domestic tableau, it serves to support the analog human activities in the form of musical accompaniment, indoor temperature controls, 3d printed sensor activated lamp, digital food prep tutorial, agricultural robot for indoor produce cultivation, and solar powered holographic outdoor billboards.
Instead of a world where humankind is subservient and overly dependent on dominant technology conglomerates and AI, we imagine the resilient future as a careful balancing act between digital and analog worlds, where AI and virtual reality complement and co-exist with physical reality.
As a Case study backdrop to play with our ideas about re-imagining the city, we chose the TD Tower Complex in Toronto, a Utopian vision realized in 1967 by Mies Van der Rohe during a time of great prosperity and global optimism. Due to its visionary design, unequalled size and central location, the international landmark has been a symbol of the business elite (the 1%) for over half a century.
Operating on the thesis that a percentage of this tower complex will remain vacant post-pandemic due to financial and knowledge workers who don’t return to the physical office, this hypothetical adaptive reuse of the TD towers consists of employing the tools of technology and architectural design to imagine a more resilient, socially equitable and sustainable future within the existing flexible grid infrastructure.
This vision of a post-pandemic urban redevelopment will require major policy shifts and open dialogue between diverse public and private groups, along with the vocal representation of underrepresented groups and essential workers to whom a portion of this pilot development is dedicated. The workers who are contributing tirelessly to support quotidian and business functions during the pandemic merit new urban considerations and accommodations post-pandemic.
While the increase in remote-working is expected to continue at some level post-pandemic, re-purposing portions of vacated high rise office buildings and hotels for affordable housing could provide an opportunity to re-position and re-center the key essential workers and underrepresented groups in our cities, both physically and philosophically. Just as white-collar workers have benefitted from remote work and non-existent commutes, essential workers could equally have access to the 15-Minute City, an urban notion whereby a residents’ daily routines can be accessed within a quarter of an hour by foot or bike, eliminating the need for lengthy transit commutes, or heavy fossil fuel consumption.
In addition to affordable multi-unit housing retrofits, the former office footprint and towering 40 storey expanse of the TD towers is conducive to new technologies such as Vertical farming. A nascent industry, “Vertical farming is the practice of growing crops in vertically stacked layers. It often incorporates controlled-environment agriculture, which aims to optimize indoor plant growth, and soilless farming techniques such as hydroponics, aquaponics, and aeroponics”. Contributing to food security in highly populated urban centers, vertical farming uses robotic technology and sensors to harvest daylight and reduce water consumption, resulting in lower carbon emissions due to the reduced transportation distance from farm to table.
Inspired by this L.A. based initiative, the vertical farm empowers the workers’ collective and turns the table on Corporate Agricultural interests. Future farmer-led co-ops could harvest produce in partially vacated office towers with large expanses of south-facing windows, powered by alternative energy. The Vertical farms and retrofitted affordable housing apartments in the adjacent tower could be partially funded by new tax and employment policies that compel Big Tech and other multi-nationals to make higher municipal tax contributions, in line with their billion dollar revenues.
 Accessed from Wikipedia, 1 Dec 2020
BIG TECH IN CITY
Favoring big business and tech conglomerates by default, many lockdown-related policy decisions worldwide forced small mom-and-pop retailers and service providers to temporarily close their physical storefronts. Faced with multiple waves of lockdowns of indeterminate length, many small storefront businesses shut down permanently, diminishing the vitality of Main Streets. Left with few viable options, many people switched to online shopping at Amazon.
In contrast Amazon’s “winner takes all approach”, the Canadian tech success story Shopify is perceived as a fairer employer and the anti-Amazon, providing a digital infrastructure and essential support systems for small businesses forced to transition online. Despite Shopify’s “digital-by-default” office policy announced in May 2020 which appeared to signal the end of the physical workspace, the tech company exercised its option in June 2020 to lease an additional 90,000 square feet of space at The Well, a huge development under construction in Toronto, bringing its total occupancy to 340,000 square feet of new office space. In December, Amazon also signed a deal to lease 100,000 square feet of office space in Toronto's Financial District post-pandemic.
In addition to Tech tenants occupying a significant percentage of new real estate in central business districts, there is also a case to be made for the relocation of some e-commerce fulfilment centers from the suburbs to the city center. Due to the accelerated decline of bricks & mortar stores, the establishment of urban fulfillment centers that use cargo bikes for the last mile of delivery could help to reduce the traffic and carbon emissions.
As new Technology companies are overtaking and supplanting traditional bricks & mortar and other commercial tenants across the globe, perhaps they will play a major role in reshaping urban centers in the coming decade? Whether or not these new urban Tech tenants and settlers are a positive or negative influence on the life and death of cities remains to be seen.
Project type: Concept, Architectural Speculation
Project role: Creative Direction, Artwork, Research + Writing
Team: Workshop X Natalie S.W. Cheng
Workshop Team: Helena Grdadolnik (co-author: research, concept), Tony Li (research, artwork), David Colussi (project manager)
Video : Christopher Arcella (production), Chris Zabriskie (soundtrack)
Project featured on Archinect