No place like home: Changing relationships of private and public space during COVID-19

Most of us have been stuck at home for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic. This has underlined a longstanding image of home as a safe haven and a retreat. While “cocooning” typically brings on a cycle of intense consumption, buying stuff and doing house renovations have been difficult. Instead, we’ve turned to hoarding groceries (Fig. 1), re-arranging the furniture, editing our closets, solving puzzles (Fig. 2), cultivating house plants (Fig. 3) and baking bread (Fig. 4). As the weather improved, we gardened.

Fig. 1: Weekly grocery hauls for our family of four were much larger than usual. When lockdown began, on March 13, there was still snow on the ground.

Many Montrealers live in buildings constructed before World War I. These Victorian and Edwardian houses and apartments are set up well for both sickness and work-from-home. Pre-modern houses typically have discreet rooms arranged around circulation systems like corridors and stairways. Victorian rooms were single purpose and designed for particular family members. The parlour, for example, was for the wife and mother; the dining room, was for the husband and father. The house was an extraordinary ordering system, clearly communicating each person’s place in the universe through design. A key to its magic was its capacity for isolation.

Fig. 2: The Adams-Gossage family fridge scrabble is restricted to terms related to COVID-19.

By contrast, many homes since the 1920s, and especially after World War 2, have open plans. Modern rooms are often multi-purpose, with sight lines into other multi-purpose rooms. The postwar family room is a great example, often connected to a combination kitchen-dining room. It’s not a place where it’s easy to quarantine. The post-war kitchen, for example, was a kind of technological command centre, designed so that a single worker, the wife and mother, could cook, clean, and care for kids simultaneously.

Fig. 3: House plants are our companions, including refugee plants from our university departments.

As more people get sick (knock on wood), will the home become a container for sickness, rather than a retreat from COVID-19? For many of us, our work lives now occupy our bedrooms, dining rooms, family rooms, and basements. My own work space (Fig. 5), for example, is in a corner of our bedroom, a spot that I transform every morning for work; and take down every evening, for sleep. Post pandemic, how will we separate work and life? On Zoom we can use different backdrops to frame our work spaces, but what is the backdrop for real life? Is a new style of home with dedicated and separate spaces for work on the horizon?

Fig. 4: Our bread standards went way up and we even started to experiment.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the Victorian sick room, where family members were nursed back to health without risk to other family members. Another recurring image is the home library/office for the man of the Victorian household, which sometimes had a separate entrance. Similarly, doctors’ offices in houses (this was common in the 20th century) is an interesting precedent for the accommodation of work at home, where pocket doors or changes in décor would indicate a clinical section of the house plan, allowing a separation of medical practice and family life. Will those with the means to renovate adapt their houses in these retro modes?

On the flip side, the pandemic has illuminated “the workplace” as somewhat unnecessary and as a potential source of contagion. If we all work from home, what will happen to our city centres? Where will business-people meet clients, in public parks and squares? Surely not in homes. What is the post COVID-19 “public sphere”? We’ve all seen the images of futuristic offices with separate bubbles for each employee. How one gets to a bubble, however, is unresolved.

Fig. 5: My improvised home-office is a little-used dining room table, moved to a corner of our bedroom, with an ever-changing Zoom backdrop as smokescreen.

The pandemic has illuminated the hospital as a source of contagion, and thus a place to avoid. How will hospitals change after COVID-19? I suspect hospital architects will focus on preparing for the unexpected. I’ve watched with some amusement the return to the so-called “pavilion plan” for emergency hospitals in cities like London. Pavilion-plan hospitals maximized ventilation; its hallmark feature was the Nightingale ward, where 30-36 patients occupied beds interspersed between often-open windows. These spaces resembled barracks. Montrealers may know it from the old Royal Vic, in use until 2015 (Fig. 6). This type of hospital-as-shed, we have learned, is better than nothing, but might it also be better than the purpose-built hospital with its inflexible circulation and single-purpose planning?

Additionally, the pandemic has revealed long-term care institutions as sources of contagion. One might even say that long-term care is our new image of hell. Few speak about the architecture, beyond the need for single rooms. The architectural problem is much larger than density. Long-term care is a very low prestige building type among architects. There is next to no encouragement in schools of architecture to take on buildings that solve social problems, let alone “warehouse” old people. There are few design awards for long-term care; housing in general rarely gets published in the glossy magazines and websites. What incentive is there for innovation? Sometimes I think it should be called Long-term Not-care.

Fig. 6: The now empty Royal Victoria Hospital wards once housed 32-36 patients, separated by open windows. The pavilion-plan hospital maximized ventilation in order to minimize contagion.

My theory about why the long-term care nightmare of COVID-19 has been so shocking is because it de-stabilizes our image of home as a safe haven.

On the bright side, and to conclude, I like the way the pandemic has brought new admiration to older, low-tech systems like the Victorian house, the sick room, and the pavilion-plan hospital.  Relatedly, I embrace all the hand-drawn signs and optimistic, crooked rainbows (Fig. 7). I think they are evidence that what we design post COVID-19 will have a more human touch.

Fig. 7: Delightful, hand-drawn rainbows, with the optimistic message ça va bien aller, decorate windows all over Montreal.

Graphic advice by Anaik Fortier and David Theodore. Photos and bread by Annmarie Adams. Rainbow by Katie Adams-Gossage. Fridge scrabble mostly by Peter Gossage.

Some recommended readings on changing notions of home and work:

Annmarie Adams (and others), “Field notes on pandemic teaching: 5,” Places (April 2020)

Kyla Chayka, “How the Coronavirus will reshape architecture,” New Yorker (17 June 2020)

Harriet Little Fitch, “Will our homes look different after the pandemic?” Financial Times Magazine (6 June 2020)

Edwin Heathcote, “Between dreams and delirium: reflections on illness, Financial Times Magazine (20 June 2020)

Joe Moran, “Out of office: has the homeworking revolution finally arrived?” The Guardian (11 July 2020)

Annalise Varghese, Maram Shaweesh, “Rethinking ‘home’ post pandemic,” Parlour: women, equity, architecture (29 April 2020)

One response to “No place like home: Changing relationships of private and public space during COVID-19”

  1. KS says:

    Thought provoking. What made me wince in particular is the image of warehousing the elderly. No matter how you prettify it–and many don’t have even that much–the elderly are shelved away. Contributions that they can offer through wisdom gained of age and lessons any younger generation could learn are lost to us. Our society is structured so that we are always on the go, you have to keep up and if you can’t, step to the side or be pushed there.

Blog authors are solely responsible for the content of the blogs listed in the directory. Neither the content of these blogs, nor the links to other web sites, are screened, approved, reviewed or endorsed by McGill University. The text and other material on these blogs are the opinion of the specific author and are not statements of advice, opinion, or information of McGill.