A Place Apart, A Place Together

Blog — 25 Sep 2020

“A Place Apart - A place together” could perhaps be understand as the simple division of our intimate and shared worlds, our homes and workplaces", so says Mike Stiff, as part of his introduction to the Messum's Architecture 2020 panel discussion looking at how collective spaces need to be reimagined and how architecture is adapting to a post Covid-19 society.

Mike continues:

"So I would suggest that we see A place Apart as the private realm, characterised by the privacy and intimacy of the home. And A place Together as the public realm, characterised by the combination of anonymity and social engagement that makes a city.

For Frink a place apart was her studio, a creative room remote from the family house, somewhere away from the domestic routine that allowed her to focus on her practice. Bringing that place into the barn allows us to ponder this idea of study, work and home and is particularly apposite as we all try to rebalance our lives after the lockdown.

Elisabeth Frink's Woolland Studio recreated at Messum's Wiltshire

For those of us who live and work in London the impact of Covid 19 is there to be seen, the West End, Midtown, the City and Canary Wharf have all been eerily quiet, no workers and no tourists mean closed restaurants, pubs, shops theatres and arts venues.

We have also had to forge new relationships with our homes and our families, the more fortunate of us had spacious apartments with terraces, or houses with gardens, but a large proportion of the population were trapped in small flats with no outside space, and if they were working rather than furloughing, no space for desks.

In a curious reversal of the norm, our private realm became a ‘place together’, confined with our families, while the shared space of the public realm became a desolate and lonely ‘place apart’.

Our understanding of community and solitude, of workplace and home, the issues that determine the shape and quality of our spaces both internal and external, has been challenged. The normally distinct separation of the public and private realm has been blurred, and it seems that this relationship may permanently change. I will come back to this point, but it is interesting to consider our current predicament in a historical context. After all, this is by no means the first time, and it will not be the last time, that London has reshaped its environment in response to a natural disaster.

”A Journal of the Plague Year” by Daniel Defoe is a journalistic account of London in the 1660’s as the plague broke out in The City of London. The parallels are striking, the use of statistics, a sense of denial, bewilderment, the urge to escape, a city in lockdown and the resultant financial collapse all accompany the uncontrolled death toll.

“The face of London was now strangely altered; sorrow and sadness sat upon every face; and though some parts were not yet overwhelmed, yet all looked deeply concerned, and as we saw it apparently coming on, so everyone looked on himself and his family as in the utmost danger”

The parallels with 2020 are uncanny, as the plague gathered momentum laws were quickly enacted to enforce social distancing:

“Again, the public showed that they would bear their share in these things; the very Court, which was then gay and luxurious, put on a face of just concern for the public danger. All the plays and interludes were forbid to act; the gaming-tables, public dancing rooms and music houses were shut up and supressed”

The poor quality of the buildings and lack of sanitation did nothing to stop the rat borne plague. It was the great fire in 1666 that enabled the wholesale rebuilding of the City refreshing the entire building stock and legislating for building regulations and party wall agreements. However, the cause of the pandemic was still misunderstood, it was still believed that the virus was an airborne miasma. It was not until the mid-nineteenth Century that the link between the spread of disease and the built environment was properly established.

In the 1850’s a cholera epidemic was devastating London. Sanitation had improved very little in the two hundred years since the fire, and raw sewage was still pumped into the Thames and its tributaries or into cesspits which inevitably infected the city’s drinking water.

It was a physician, John Snow, who used mapping to understand that the source of the outbreak in Soho was not from an airborne miasma, but from the contaminated water delivered by the Broad Street pump. By isolating that source he slowed the spread of the disease which had claimed 127 local lives in 3 days.

An act of Parliament soon followed and Joseph Bazalgette’s sewage system was installed along the Thames embankment to disperse foul waste from across the city to the Thames Estuary. Furthermore, streets were widened and paved with larger slabs, thresholds introduced, and properties were connected to the new municipal sewage system. This is pretty much the central London we see today.

Twentieth century architects exchanged high Edwardianism for a modernist aesthetic partly in response to the Spanish Flu and TB outbreaks after the First World War. At the turn of the century bathrooms were still as they were in Victorian times, little different to bed chambers. Now they were tiled and sealed plumbing was integrated, hard cleanable surfaces were used in kitchens, larders and hallways.

Perhaps today we see International Modernism as a “style”, but the clean white spacious architecture was born out of an interest in creating airy, sunlit and hygienic spaces to counter the dismal air quality and cramped living conditions that resulted from the rapid urban expansion of the industrial revolution. This is Alvar Aaltos Paimio TB Sanatorium in Finland from 1933.

In British cities the post war slum clearance of Victorian terraces allowed the modernists to experiment with a Corbusian vision of C20th dwelling, and ribbon or point blocks in landscaped estates were the order of the day. Unfortunately more often than not the results did not match the ambitions.

These three examples mark radical changes in the design, planning and spatiality of our cities. The great fire lead to building codes and a complete reappraisal of the materiality of buildings and the spatiality of the city, which in time lead to the Georgian terraces and Squares that make up some of the most enjoyable areas of London. The Victorians introduced the infrastructure of drains and trains that we still use today, and the modernists interest in light, space and volume has never been more pertinent as we are advised to switch off the aircon and fling open the windows.

As we emerge from this lockdown architects planners and designers have an opportunity, or perhaps a duty, to re-evaluate the way we work and the way we use cities, and to reappraise residential space standards. This is an opportunity for a generational shift in thinking, embracing action on climate change to create cleaner greener cities and towns.

Post Covid 19 we will, by necessity, lead our lives very differently, and the places we work, play and live in will need to adapt and change. Things that we take for granted will be viewed with suspicion, who will want to squeeze into a packed commuter or tube or train for example? The very fabric of our cities is being re-evaluated, The City of London is still a ghost town, as many larger corporations reconsider their working policy.

As much as I would not want to commute, I would not want to work and live in the same space on a permanent basis, the social dimension of office life should not be undervalued. There is no doubt that the British workforce adapted well to remote working, but I feel that the initial burst of enthusiasm amongst employers and employees will wane. The routines that structured city life have been dismantled, commuting five days a week, business lunches and after work drinks. The impact on our built environment is potentially catastrophic, an ARUP report suggests that for every 100 office workers, 18 jobs are supported in retail, restaurants bars and gyms.

Architects have a particular responsibility for the physical and mental well-being of the people we work with, and of course the people we design for. The value of city life and the social dimension of the office will be hard to replace, architects, planners and developers need to create the sorts of spaces to live and work in that will ensure the future of our cities which drive the wealth of the nation. “A Place Together”