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Can architecture help combat the spread of pathogens? Malavika Krishnan goes back in time to see how architecture has evolved to deal with infectious diseases.
With social distancing as the only plausible way to break the chain of the spread of the virus, we are forced to be more creative in using environments and technology to connect and interact with others. (Photo: Marjolein van der Veldt)

Can architecture help combat the spread of pathogens? Malavika Krishnan goes back in time to see how architecture has evolved to deal with infectious diseases.

We are living in truly surreal times. With TU Delft shut down, we are forced to become accustomed to a new reality. Working from home, attending online lectures and practicing self-isolation is nothing like what we have experienced before. The coronavirus pandemic has essentially changed our everyday lives. With the campus inaccessible and most of the buildings shut down, we really need to rethink our physical environments and their role in dealing with a crisis like this. How can the different buildings in TU Delft overcome a future pandemic? Can architecture serve as an aid to combat the spread of pathogens? To answer this, let us go back in history to see how architecture and urban planning has evolved over time to deal with infectious diseases.

Sewage infrastructure and sanatoria 
In the early 1800s, Europe was suffering from a disastrous cholera epidemic. It wasn’t until a London physician named John Snow proved that contaminated drinking water caused these deaths, that the modern day sewage and water infrastructure was developed. The outbreak eventually led to the sanitary reform movement, with cities making the straighter and wider streets that were necessary to install underground sewage systems. Similarly, to stop the spread of tuberculosis in the 1880s, it was necessary for people to have ample fresh air and sunlight. The standard care for tuberculosis patients was to put them in adapted physical environments, and this led to the Sanatorium movement across Europe. The sanatoria were purpose built buildings designed to limit the spread of germs and to allow in enough sunlight. This eventually influenced the 19th century modernist architecture that favoured functionalist buildings made of glass and concrete with balconies and terraces. So indirectly, many of these diseases may have influenced the design of our buildings today, and even some on campus.

We need to be able to make our workspaces, our study areas, lecture halls, labs and canteens more adaptable

These examples highlight how adaptation through design is inevitable to stop the spread of disease. Today, with Covid-19 gripping the world, we are yet again at another crossroad where we have to innovate and reconsider the way we use and experience several spaces, including the ones on campus. With social distancing as the only plausible way to break the chain of the spread of the virus, we are forced to be more creative in using environments and technology to connect and interact with others. It is important that distancing does not lead to isolation and depression. So being positive and proactive in times like this is of utmost cruciality, and certain designs can nudge people towards this. We already saw on campus how students are using innovative ways to cope with the situation. In Prof. Schermerhornstraat (student housing on campus), we saw students organise themselves on the balconies to sing and dance together. We also see how we can make our living areas more work friendly in various ways. This shows the importance of having a corridor space or a balcony so that we can interact without being close physically. Having a window overlooking a green space can improve our productivity effectively, or having a natural open space close by where we can take a stroll or a run is making the stay at home life infinitely better. These are examples of how much our physical environments are important to us in order to function effectively. 

Our campus needs to adapt and adjust to situations like these in the future where a pandemic seems plausible. And for this we can take inspiration from the many innovations in history that were born out of sheer tenacity to overcome or the small initiatives that we are taking now to cope. We need to be able to make our workspaces, our study areas, lecture halls, labs and canteens more adaptable to be able to continue to work together even while practicing social distancing.  As the saying goes, ‘necessity is the mother of invention’, and this coronavirus crisis can inspire us to make our campus more open to respond to such events. So, I hope in the next couple of years, there is going to be a fundamental change in the way we think about our campus and its spaces, and even our cities.

Malavika Krishnan (25) is a second year Delft MSc Urbanism student from Kochi, India. An architect by profession and a writer by passion, she loves everything to do with art and design and the way they shape the human experience. In this monthly series on urbanism she will try to change the way you perceive the TU Delft campus.

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