COVID-19 has created a rare opportunity to rethink the design of our cities. We spoke to Perkins Eastman to learn how they envision creating sustainable cities for the future.
COVID-19 has transformed how we live and work. Architectural firms especially have encountered unprecedented challenges and met them with innovative solutions. This week, we sat down with Peter Cavaluzzi, Principal/Board Director at Perkins Eastman — a global architecture and design firm guided by the belief that design can have a positive and lasting impact on people’s lives. We discussed with Cavaluzzi how the pandemic has affected the way the company thinks about urban architecture and the future of the city.
Reconsidering Cities in the Wake of COVID-19
Even in the early days of the pandemic, the large-scale shift to work-from-home meant that many professionals had to rethink workplace norms and the necessity of office space. While some workers took the opportunity to reinvent workplace interiors, Cavaluzzi and the team at Perkins Eastman began asking questions about the makeup of the city itself.
In a recent piece titled “Gallery of Urban Ideas: New Design Approaches,” Cavaluzzi and his colleagues discussed the ways the pandemic has brought to light a number of structural issues endemic to the city. In particular, they considered the lack of public spaces, including the limitations and lack of choice in cities that exclusively offer a few centralized open spaces like large parks or gardens. Few cities have public spaces that are decentralized, multiplied, and within reach of every home in every neighborhood. As a result, many people opted to leave the city behind in favor of the suburbs when the pandemic hit.
Cavaluzzi and his colleagues believe that the pandemic has conclusively demonstrated that for cities to survive and remain desirable, they need to increase pedestrian space and make public spaces more accessible and equitable.
Integrating Architecture and Public Space
Luckily, changing urban designs does not mean starting from scratch. “We need to learn from the public spaces that exist and extend and enhance what is already there,” says Cavaluzzi. “We can create more options — open spaces that provide the security and mobility that people want, particularly during a pandemic.”
He believes the best way to do that is through the integration of architecture and building with public space. The vision of the city laid out by Perkins Eastman combines building concepts with designs for public space. The idea seems simple and intuitive, but it’s often neglected in discussions of urban planning, design, and architecture.
For Cavaluzzi, choice is at the heart of a successful city. Pedestrians should be able to choose when and how they use their space. “You can’t really have that true sense of choice and value unless buildings and public spaces are designed together,” Cavaluzzi explains. “You really have to consider how the pedestrian experiences them together.”
A New Vision for the City
As cities shut down across the world, Perkins Eastman found an unprecedented opportunity to examine the architectural elements that make up great places. The result is a new vision for city life. Inspired by the environment around the Duomo in Milan, Cavaluzzi and his team recently presented a vision for a new space surrounding Madison Square Park in New York City. Their concept includes both indoor and outdoor spaces that will create what Cavaluzzi describes as a “public realm that will stand the test of time.” Cavaluzzi says: “It will be attractive enough to provide the choices that are now at a premium for people who are living in the city with COVID.”
In addition to wider streets, more green areas, rooftops and terraces, and even a cable car (though he admits the latter might be a touch fanciful), the firm envisions building on top of buildings as a way to celebrate the historic value of existing buildings while maintaining their use. This idea is already in practice in one of the company’s current projects in Brooklyn called “The Wheeler.” Here, they added another eight floors for the Whittle School & Studios on top of the old Macy’s department store right in the heart of downtown Brooklyn.
Making the Most of the Pandemic Wakeup Call
“I think that we can once again create those iconic places that bring the public and private together in the city,” says Cavaluzzi. “If we meet both the private needs and the public needs of individuals, we’ll really have something that’s attractive and that lasts, something that will really drive the evolution and growth of a city like New York.”
In order to achieve that goal, he and his colleagues see the pandemic as both an opportunity and a wakeup call. As Cavaluzzi puts it, “we have a chance to really reinforce cities as a place to be now and well into the future.” To do that, we have to start thinking about architecture as more than just the creation of the object. It’s time to start thinking about the implications of architecture beyond private needs — we have to understand that it’s inextricable from the public realm.