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Future by design: Vignettes of a post-pandemic world

Vishnupriya Sengupta | Updated on October 16, 2020 Published on October 16, 2020

Room for change: Organisations have opened their minds to alternative hygienic spaces for working and growing their businesses without brick-and-mortar offices - ISTOCK.COM   -  Getty Images

The pandemic has blurred many a line — especially the one between work and home. It has also spurred architects across the world to view spaces and utilities through a new lens. A blueprint for new cityscapes, with greater emphasis on environment, hygiene, fitness and communities, is in the works

* While the pandemic may not be able to wipe out traditional office typology entirely, remote working today is more critical than ever before

* Indian architects are not alone in this new thinking. Cities such as Paris, Milan and Melbourne are piloting the 15- to 20-minute ‘hyper local’ city model to ensure all amenities are within a 15-minute walking or biking radius

* It’s time to reconfigure houses within affordable limits of space, and do away with additional monofunctional spaces such as separate living quarters for the domestic help

* Architects are now putting their heads together for contactless pathways enabled by motion and sound sensors, and facial recognition apps to ensure the safety of employees

Picture this.

2020: It’s Monday morning, but Akash is no hurry. The IT professional is relieved that he doesn’t need to wade through traffic snarls to make his way to office. He opens the window of his room in the Kasol homestay that overlooks the mountains to take in some fresh air, wears a formal shirt over a pair of shorts, logs in to his office network and starts working — from the Himalayas.

That’s the new normal for many like Akash, who is on a ‘workation’ in Kasol. For ₹35,000 a month, Akash is virtually in office, physically nestled in the folds of nature, fusing business and pleasure without compromising on social distancing.

Fast forward to 2023.

‘Workation’ continues. Akash has moved away from the madding crowds of Gurugram to Alwar and is happily ensconced in a housing complex comprising like-minded individuals with designated places to live in and work from. With more and more people desiring to live in such premises that are protected, hygienic and safe, the past couple of years have seen several such housing estates sprouting up.

The estate accommodates 30 families, and each occupies a flat comprising one or two bedrooms, a hall, kitchen, recreation and office space. Akash didn’t mind giving up some of the residential space to make room for office and recreation facilities — common and shared by all the families. The complex houses a swimming pool, gym, meeting rooms, consoles for work and meets all the requirements of the families residing here.

Akash no longer feels a sense of isolation, is content with the solitude and has an active social and office life, without one encroaching into the other.

Flash forward to 2026.

It’s six in the morning. Akash has moved back to his hometown Bareilly, a Tier-2 city. Connectivity has improved with 5G in place, and Akash is online 24x7. Work happens from anywhere, and at any time. All one needs is bandwidth — physical and technical. Physical meetings are far less in number. Virtual meeting apps are now a dime a dozen, with holograms gradually taking centre-stage.

The company he joined recently has provided employees the option to work from home, and coming in only when required. Most of Akash’s colleagues have moved back to their hometowns. The last few years have witnessed a reverse-migration to smaller towns and Tier-2 and Tier-3 cities for a better quality of life and a good standard of living but at a lower cost.

Metropolises, on their part, have become far more inclusive in nature with white-collar workers living shoulder-to-shoulder with blue-collar workers and the epithet “migrant” having faded from public memory. It is now hard to imagine a time when the global pandemic had forced ‘migrant labourers’ to hit the streets, walking miles on end to reach their homes. Space in these megacities is now multifunctional, utilised far more efficiently and judiciously, with the same space at times doubling as a business meeting lounge during the day, and restaurant by night.

These dream sequences, each reading like a ‘PechaKucha’ — a storytelling format that focusses on a main idea — could well transform into reality, altering India’s shifting landscape, contend architects, if governments, municipalities, real estate developers and city/town planners come together and endeavour to make India green, clean and smart.

While the global pandemic may not be able to wipe out traditional office typology entirely, remote working today is more critical than ever before. Organisations have opened their minds to alternative hygienic spaces for working and growing their businesses without brick-and-mortar offices, relying heavily on collaboration tools for a productive environment.

With space being redefined and perceived afresh through a physico-mental lens, architects are contemplating the physical redesign of not only homes and offices but also the city landscape, factoring in pollution control measures, safety and fitness.

15-minute neighbourhood

Indian architects are not alone in this new thinking. Cities such as Paris, Milan and Melbourne, too, are rethinking design and piloting the 15- to 20-minute ‘hyper local’ city model to ensure all amenities are within a 15-minute walking or biking radius. This would ensure that people keep to their respective local areas and develop a community feeling by building social networks. In fact, a World Economic Forum video developed to promote the fourth and, for the first time, fully virtual Sustainable Development Impact Summit held from September 21-24, underlines how 15-minute neighbourhoods could help create a better future for people across the globe.

Where there is a wheel: All streets in Paris are likely to have a cycle lane by 2024   -  REUTERS/ GONZALO FUENTES

 

If everything is a stone’s throw away, reduced car use could decrease CO2 emissions and ensure cleaner air. With that concept in mind, all streets in Paris are likely to have a cycle lane by 2024; it has also been proposed that 60,000 on-street parking spots be replaced with green space, allotments and playgrounds. Paris has also banned cars one Sunday a month and along the River Seine, and created an additional 50 km of cycle lanes during the lockdown.

Milan, too, is running a 15-minute pilot in the Lazzaretto area on the lines of urbanist Jane Jacobs’s community-based approach to city buildings. The focus would be on higher density, short blocks, local economies, mixed uses, and, most important, local people would have a say in matters related to their neighbourhood development.

Monofunctional to multifunctional

“The pandemic has brought to surface the inherent flaws in the way we plan our cities intertwining personal and public space. These are all unequal cities with barely any room for the poor. Going forward, it would be imperative to reconsider densification and also ensure our cities are egalitarian, inclusive, less consumptive and more human, with space for everyone — from the rich and famous to hoi polloi,” says AG Krishna Menon, urban planner and a founder member of Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH).

What Menon — with his expertise on town planning, architecture and heritage planning — is postulating may be improbable but not impossible if one were to consider the concept of “incremental buildings”. Housing deficit in megacities could perhaps be addressed by drawing inspiration from Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena, known for his socially conscious building projects that attempt to break down economic inequality in urban areas.

Architect SK Das, who is also the winner of the Government of India’s Community Architecture Award, echoes this sentiment. It’s time to reconfigure houses within affordable limits of space, and do away with additional monofunctional spaces such as separate living quarters for the domestic help. “Spaces should be all-weather and multilayered for different uses over varying periods of time; not air-conditioned but naturally and abundantly ventilated,” says Das, a recipient of the Outstanding Global Urban Professional Award at the UN Habitat World Urban Forum, Abu Dhabi.

Multifunctionality, he adds, should be a driving factor. “With self-quarantine emerging as a necessity, in the redesign of houses, such a possibility can overlap with some day-to-day work-at-home needs. There is also the need for balconies and common lobbies to be recast as social spaces for interaction while maintaining physical distance.”

Over-concretisation is another bane that must make way for landscape and vegetation. Das draws reference to housing typologies in the UK — in particular, London — where access corridors were transformed into “streets” at various levels with provisions for leisure and recreation amid generous gardens. “That concept of creating spaces of social value is worth emulating in some Indian cities,” he says.

Living/ meeting rooms

Moving from cityscape to office spaces, technologies such as Artificial Intelligence, automation, sound and motion sensors have been the table stakes around the world in response to the current crisis. Architects are now putting their heads together for contactless pathways enabled by motion and sound sensors, and facial recognition apps to ensure the safety of employees.

Touch sensitive: Technologies such as Artificial Intelligence, automation, sound and motion sensors have been the table stakes around the world in response to the current crisis   -  REUTERS/ ISSEI KATO

 

Some offices in metropolises have had their walls plastered with visual instructions, encouraging people to walk clockwise through one-way bays. A few have also increased the depth of the corridors to ease the formation of lanes, apart from adding potted plants between work stations as dividers to ensure social distancing. Even the air-conditioning system has been modified to reduce the humidity that helps germs multiply.

While these measures are meant to draw people back to their office/ factory premises, there are other concerns that are top of mind for some architects, especially now that technology is gradually reducing the demand for commercial space. “I wonder about the future of those offices — spanning over 3 million sq ft in Gurugram or Goregaon. To prevent them from falling into ruin going forward, are we going to look at converting those offices into residences? That will have huge cost implications and challenges, considering the alterations that have to be made starting from plumbing work to much else,” says award winning Delhi-based architect, artist and writer Gautam Bhatia.

While it may be hard to predict what the future holds, Bhatia thinks aloud when he says ‘resimercial’ estates — a mix of residences and commercial office space in the same premises — that would blur the lines between living rooms and meeting rooms — could be a feasible option. “Allotting every alternate floor to apartments so that one can simply walk back and forth from one’s residence to office would prompt more people to stay in rented accommodations, saving long hours spent commuting that could be used more productively and reducing the load on the environment,” he contends.

From coming to work to coming alive

On the flip side, bringing office home is not much of a challenge. For those who would rather work from home, making alterations — carving out a small home office from a part of the balcony, bedroom or a jutting corner — has been easy. “Some have also converted a garage into a home office and the more enterprising ones have turned garages into small hygienic workplaces that can be given on rent,” Bengaluru-based architect Gaurav Roy Choudhury says. He attributes this acumen to the millennial’s constant search for options to monetise assets. Renting out the terrace or garage or even a spare room that can be used for some recreational or social purpose is never far from their minds, he adds.

Be that as it may, some countries have taken initiatives to create alternative workplaces such as neighbourhood work clubs to address a global sentiment manifest in a recent New Yorker cartoon that features a flustered man at his desk with papers strewn all around telling a quizzical woman, “I can’t remember — do I work at home or do I live at work?”

Good Space, a 3,500-sq ft work club in Queen’s Park, London, is a case in point. Its website proclaims: “It’s an office that doesn’t feel like an office. It’s a place where you can get stuff done and work as comfortably as you would in your very own living room. It’s a club in the neighbourhood and for the neighbourhood.” Comprising dedicated desks, hot desks and meeting areas, it is like the elixir of life for many, helping them come alive rather than simply come to work.

Watch this space: Kolkata-based architect Abin Chaudhuri’s Cocoon project focuses on cost-efficient working pods   -  IMAGE COURTESY: ABIN CHAUDHURI

 

Closer home, Kolkata-based architect Abin Chaudhuri is designing a similar co-working space called Cocoon with cost-efficient working pods that can seat 25 people in New Town, Kolkata. “An interplay of open space and built form, this is a greenfield project initiated by West Bengal Housing Infrastructure Development Corporation (HIDCO),” says Chaudhuri. Anyone who wishes to get away from home and is looking for some low-cost, cosy and friendly ambience to spend some time either working or lounging around with a cup of coffee would be able to book a seat here for a few hours. It will be well-equipped with high-speed network connectivity, workstations, television and adequate greenery. One could even take a break and visit the terrace for some fresh air.

Social distancing norms have been followed with long glass partitions, and provisions for maintaining six-foot distance in seating arrangements, ensuring the Cocoons would be safe even post-pandemic. “While the cost and terms and conditions will be finalised by HIDCO, these co-working spaces would be relatively cheaper than hoteling stations, and may be booked by individuals, not necessarily by companies,” adds Chaudhuri.

Design central

Design, then, would be key to the success of future workplaces. “Design is as much about creativity as it is about balance — balance that entails a mix of natural and artificial light, proper ventilation and use of air-conditioners, along with space utilisation that bakes in some flexibility,” says Roy Choudhury.

While restructuring, redoing and resizing space today is top priority, what is equally important, Das avers, is to factor in local conditions rather than adopt a global template that glosses over the socio-cultural aspects of a place and is a mindless application of borrowed traditions driven more by profit rather than values. “We need to look for connectedness in the ecosystem, and strike a balance between the ideas of ‘use value’ and ‘exchange value’ of space.

Architect Dulal Mukherjee of Dulal Mukherjee & Associates, the man behind the residential project South City on Kolkata’s Anwar Shah Road, agrees, adding, “Changes will happen organically over time. But let us not forget the lessons the pandemic has taught us — the importance of drawing nature back into our lives with renewed vigour, that of hygiene and cleanliness — and focus on simple things like carving out pedestrian walkways and footpaths that are clean and free to walk on, or cyclists lanes or more street shopping at walking distances. These will make for a strong starting point.”

The future of workplace and workspace then holds promise, encouraging dialogue by design, breaking barriers, and leading to inclusivity and productivity.

Vishnupriya Sengupta is an independent researcher and works for a professional services firm

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Published on October 16, 2020
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