Design in the Time of Covid

March 26, 2021 Today listening to the tributes to Michael Sorkin (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a6wChlf8398), I realized how indebted this piece is to Michael who recognized that, in the words of Joan Copjec, “comfort isn’t friendly.” I now dedicate it to him, knowing that my prose pales against his, but trying to write the city, nonetheless.

Pier 26, NYC

I’ve lived here for 46 years, first uptown near the border of East Harlem then downtown in Soho watching the city’s image go from blight to bling. Of course, the reality is a bit more complex. The City of Profit is forever in tension with the City of Conviviality—conviviality being reason we choose to live so closely in the first place. It’s just that, today, in the midst of a building boom—so counterintuitive when small businesses are shuttered everyday—New York seems more like Italo Calvino’s Zobeide (built of a lustful competitiveness) than his Zora (built of the experiences of its inhabitants).1

So why am I still here? Luck. I’m here by an accident of real estate  (produced by Zobeide) and the protection of the City’s loft law (written by Zora). It also doesn’t hurt that I like living in a place that’s not totally pristine. Soot comes through our leaky windows; we don’t have a doorbell so we have to schlep up and down three flights of stairs; and our mail regularly ends up in a neighbor’s box. These manageable inconveniences are almost all that’s left of the city I love, which is decidedly not the city of slick glass towers. The worst part of these mirrored buildings, now jostling for space with their asymmetrical and needle-nosed cousins, is their collective snub to street life. 

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised since so many of these buildings are empty of residents; they are simply investments—and investments have no need of groceries, shoe repairs, plumbing supplies, or coffee shops. They recycle the modernist penchant for sinking the building directly into the ground (think Mies’s Seagram Building) or conversely, lifting it off the ground on piloti (think Corbusier’s Unite d’Habitation). With few exceptions, these latest iterations of the skyscraper leave no space for the windows and services that entertain us, that reward us for walking the city. Apparently looking is discouraged. (I’ve even seen signs on noncommercial buildings saying:  “Private Residence. Please do not stand in front of window. Thank you.”)

Duane St.
Prince St.
Raoul’s, Prince St.

However, just as Manhattan was in danger of becoming an indoor city, Covid struck. And once it became apparent that the pandemic was here for the foreseeable future, another kind of architecture started to appear. Plywood and planks of 2’x4’s were suddenly in great demand as informal shacks started populating the sidewalks and streets as restaurants. Over the months, they evolved into what Robert Venturi called ‘decorated sheds.’2 One of my favorites is, in fact, not a restaurant but a clothing store called Daily Paper, whose architects sheathed a nondescript building in lathe, studding it with crushed tin cans that gleam like gems in the sunlight.

Daily Paper, Delancey St.
detail, Daily Paper

But the rise of the decorated shed really must be credited to the more sociable restaurant. On my Covid walks, I’ve seen a Thai temple, a faux-forest enclosure of birch branches, a hut sporting Alpine-themed lattice, and inevitably, American Express-branded structures that look like very tidy train cars, hooked together along a city block.

Faux rug and faux tortoise shell, raising the ante on DIY

It didn’t take long for these sheds to be ornamented inside as well as out. It’s now common to find them kitted out with stylish lighting fixtures, drapes, plants, flower boxes, and blankets for diners braving freezing weather this past winter. Festooned with strings of lights, these cheerful manifestations of tactical urbanism give the city a feeling of carnival. Acting-out has become eating-out. There’s a bravado built into these carnival tents of plastic and wood that reminds New Yorkers that it’s still possible to ‘make it here.’3

Greene St.

And if you’re having trouble making it—it goes without saying that eating out is prohibitive for those whose livelihoods have been lost or are hanging by a thread—New York’s better angels have an answer for that which also involves improvisation:  Mutual Aid Groups. Just yesterday I walked by a small wooden cabinet on the Lower East Side whose shelves were open to the street with free food for anyone who needs it. There are also more networked efforts like that of theFridgeGirls.com who stock sidewalk refrigerators that are in turn cleaned by volunteers and given electricity via extension cords from local businesses.4

theFridgeGirls

Both of these examples—sit-down street restaurants and stand-up street pantries—raise a more interesting question than ‘what should be designed for New York post-pandemic?’  The better question is:  How might we support the city of New Yorkers: native, new, or transient? 

Designers can (and increasingly do) provide support in amplifying initiatives like the ones described here. They do it with systems that are socially sustainable and with materials and structures that are environmentally responsible—and, in an ideal world, without sacrifice to beauty. (Beauty being a quality that varies from neighborhood to neighborhood, block to block.) Together with their neighbors, designers can challenge the politics of money that controls who eats where, who eats well, and who eats at all in the City, and in doing so, design the City of Conviviality.

Coda: If this portrayal of New York sounds familiar, I’m not surprised. Many cities have similar improvised places and systems of care. Please don’t take this essay as more than a provincial snapshot.

I am tired of American exceptionalism and all its variants.

  1. Italo Calvino. Invisible Cities, trans. William Weaver (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 1972) 45, 15,
  2. Decorated sheds are “systems of space and structure are directly at the service of program, [where] ornament is applied independently.” Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi. Learning from Las Vegas: The Forgotten Symbolism of Architectural Form. (Cambridge, Ma.: MIT Press, 1977), 87.
  3. One of New Yorkers’ favorite anthems, regularly played at Yankee Stadium, is Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” with its famous refrain: “If I can make it there, I can make it anywhere.” 
  4. Thanks to Vyjayanthi Rao, faculty, Spitzer School of Architecture, CUNY, for directing my attention to theFridgeGirls.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s