Social distancing and other lessons in architecture

April 8, 2020 | By: Arch. Jonathan V. Manalad (as first published in The Manila Times last April 7, 2020)

AS we witness a pandemic that threatens the global economy, we are reduced to the most basic things we can do at the moment to help flatten the curve, which that is to stay at home so as not to add to the exponential increase of coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) cases. At the Association of Southeast Asian Nations forefront, senior health officials discussed “capacity needs and gaps” in the national response of each member-state that could possibly be supported through cooperation.

Architecture teaches various kinds of distance

One of the terms that have become a by-word in this crisis is “social distancing.” Health authorities interpret it as “a conscious effort to maintain distance between yourself and other people as a way to mitigate the spread of disease.” Such examples are avoiding gathering in groups of more than 10 people and refrain from unnecessary travels.

Social distance is something already familiar to architects. It is part of a broad topic in theory of architecture that delves on the study of human use of space and the effects that population density has on behavior, communication, and social interaction. It is a theory by American cultural anthropologist Edward Hall who in 1963 coined the term “proxemics” by combining the words proximity and phonemics. His theory defined the various use of space as a specific amplification of culture. According to Hall, the study of proxemics is significant in how everyday people interact with each other.

The fun part in discussing this is the fact that proxemics is not explicit. It is purely imaginary and virtual. It allows future architects to realize the various effects of distance and volume from their own minds, from their own experience in general. Let me share here the four types of proxemics that architects learned in school which they apply in their profession:

Intimate distance is defined as a person’s distance to another person he is intimate with which is from six to 18 inches. Our family interaction spaces designed by architects is based on this parameter such as family room, bedrooms, lanai, lounge and other family-oriented spaces that allow bonding of the family that consider measurement of intimate distance as basis of such designs.

Personal distance means you are 18 inches to four feet close to another person. Hall describes personal distance as keeping someone at “arm’s length.” A typical classroom design that arranges individual armchairs for 50 students with a gap of two feet from each other is an example of personal distance. For a layman, this distance is best described as “not too close, yet not far” from another person.

Social distance is four to 12 feet away from another person. According to Hall, social distance is something common for people “who are attending a casual social gathering.”

This validates the reminder of the health authorities amid the global pandemic that we need to observe social distancing to prevent the transfer of the virus to another person by keeping a safe distance from each other.

Public distance is 12 feet or more and there is practically no interaction between persons. Here is something to consider: Have you ever wondered why it feels so comfortable to lounge around a hotel with a generous size of lobby and do not feel the same if the size is not big enough?

When architects design, they are conscious that several important sensory changes happen in the transition from the intimate to the personal distance, from personal to social distance, and from social to public distance when designing spaces. Failure to recognize this means there will be some spatial confusion as to the structure’s original intent and how it is currently functioning.

Case in point, no one would ever want to be in a very cramped space while the intention is for large gathering. Family members will not feel the warmth of each other if a private home theater is overly generous in space. It will definitely counteract its intent. Designing a fancy watering hole where intimacy between date-diners would necessitate using sofas instead of regular dining chairs to allow them to be closer to each other. In the case of offices with a large conference room, architects introduce movable partitions to break this big space into smaller rooms which can be used by smaller groups for brainstorming sessions.

These scenarios exemplify the importance of the architects’ sensitivity to how their clients will use a particular space as well as its intended result. And in the situation where we are in now, we can just imagine if hospitals were not well-designed, we will not be able to ensure proper treatment of patients. That is the dynamism of proxemics.

A call to action

Architecture as a social tool to put order in our society cannot be denied. Civic leaders can attest that properly-designed and well-planned neighborhoods create stronger communities. In addition, architecture based on the efficient study of proxemics will establish private and public spaces with a good sense of balance and spaces that are easy to move around.

I would like first to call the attention of architecture students. I challenge you to take your
studies seriously as you will be playing an important role in the shaping the social fabric of this nation. This will allow you to help build a good society in the near future. If you take your studies earnestly, you will most likely cultivate better work ethics which shall serve you well as future nation builders.

To fellow architects, in these trying times, one can clearly see how architects influence the progress of the nation. Our buildings are silent witnesses of the significant events that happen every day. As these edifices represent our noble profession, let us continue to do our civic duty to design structures and spaces that will speak best of this country as they become the platform of our nation’s progress.

To our national government, we are partners in nation building. Involve us in designing our nation every step of the way. Winston Churchill once said “We shape our buildings, thereafter they shape us.” Architects always use this quote to emphasize the importance of architecture in a nation’s progress. Utilize our expertise in providing the country the built environment that all of us deserve.

One concrete way we architects can partner with the government is to allow us to take a lead role in the local government unit’s planning office that design the locale’s medium-term development plans. Our expertise surely will be used to its utmost potential as we are the qualified to handle these matters by virtue of Republic Act 9266 or the “Architecture Law.” Help us strengthen it through the enhancements that we are pushing for at the legislative branch of the government to better serve our countrymen.

To the general public, as we experience the enhanced community quarantine, let us follow the orders of the government to stay at home and observe social distancing. We encourage you to respect the distance between you and the next person, whether a family member, a relative, an acquaintance or even a stranger. By respecting the social space between you and the other person, you are doing this country a favor of not adding to the rise Covid-19 cases. Let this be our civic duty. “As God has not made anything useless in this world, as all beings fulfill obligations or a role in the sublime drama of Creation, I cannot exempt from this duty, and small though it be, I too have a mission to fill, as for example: alleviating the sufferings of my fellowmen,” Jose Rizal once said.
This too shall pass; we shall overcome this!

The writer is the current executive director of the Commission on Education of the United Architects of the Philippines. He is active both as an educator and a private practitioner in the field of architecture and environmental planning. He is a graduate of the University of Santo Tomas (Bachelor of Science in Architecture), UP Diliman (Master in Architecture in Urban Design) and Central Luzon State University (Doctorate in Development Education).

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