CCA What It Take Star Apartments

Star Apartments, Los Angeles

The toll of the COVID-19 pandemic on 21st century cities

Canadian Centre for Architecture director Giovanna Borasi on the psychological impact of the pandemic in urban spaces.

Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA) director Giovanna Borasi on the psychological toll of the COVID-19 pandemic in cities

The Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA) is an institution that thrives on research, whose international nature has always been at the forefront of their curatorial vision.

Giovanna Borasi, who first began working with the CCA in 2005 and who took over as its director in January, mentions a curator in Tokyo, another in Buenos Aires, curators and designers scattered worldwide, so that the CCA’s diasporic nature “works very much in this new reality all the time.”

It shows in their exhibits. 2019’s Our Happy Life was so textually driven that almost immediately after seeing it, I purchased the catalogue so as to access the research at a later date. Borasi spoke about how she thinks “the exhibition is a very smart tool to summarize and construct your argument” but that that argument can take many forms — online, through video, through books etc. It’s one of the reasons why, unlike many cultural institutions, the CCA isn’t suddenly vying to move its exhibition content online. That content is already evidenced as articles and documentaries. There are certain aspects of their programming that have required rethinking, however, in particular “a program for schools” that takes place in the CCA and that they’re working on redesigning as a curriculum made available online. This endeavour aims to “stretch the qualities that the CCA already had in order not just to cope with this moment of isolation” but also to create “new formats that we will continue to implement after.”

CCA pandemic cities
Giovanna Borasi (The toll of the COVID-19 pandemic on 21st century cities)

At the time of our interview in April (before the country’s lockdown was lifted) Borasi was following the Italian news closely, observing how leaving home exclusively for groceries often “means lining up for two hours and in a frantic situation where you are also putting yourself in danger and doing the most boring thing in the world.” A walk is no longer just a walk; any flânerie is discouraged or forbidden — the mind-clearing leisure associated with so many ideals of urban cityscapes has ground to a halt.

Her point about this admixture of boredom and fear seems particularly essential to understanding the psychological toll of the COVID-19 pandemic in cities. “In North America, we have entire neighbourhoods designed for a car experience. I’m not saying there aren’t sidewalks and people don’t take care about their front decks or lawns and so on, but if you only have 10 minutes to walk, often you don’t have a very interesting walk.” If there’s nothing to interest you, nothing to draw you out of yourself, then what do you have to dwell on if not our global crisis, as you try to scuffle two metres apart from passersby, often on sidewalks not even themselves two metres wide? Likewise the notion of sharing has been turned on its head as the allure of shared space, typically something to be aspired to both socially and environmentally, has been (perhaps temporarily) shattered.

With this mental and social shattering, of course, there is also the all-consuming COVID metaphor that infects all thought, that we project onto any and all cultural material in the world. Borasi has been working on an exhibition, tentatively titled New Society, formerly slated for November 2020 but now likely opening in March 2021, that will address the changing urban family, though of course that title, and what contemporary family means, can’t help but now be read as “a reflection on this COVID discussion.” So Borasi is working with the material, trying to find a way for the show to inevitably comment on this historical moment while not limiting itself to that reading.

CCA pandemic cities
VinziRast, Vienna (The toll of the COVID-19 pandemic on 21st century cities)

As part of the 2020 online edition of FIFA (the International Festival of Films on Art), the CCA also presented What It Takes to Make a Home, a short film conceived by Borasi and directed by Daniel Schwartz. It’s the “first in a series of films explor[ing] how architects address conditions redefining 21st-century society.” The film follows two architects, Michael Maltzan in Los Angeles and Alexander Hagner in Vienna, both of whom have dedicated themselves to proposing novel housing developments in keeping with the unique circumstances of homelessness in their respective cities. For Hagner, his housing project VinziRast-mittendrin “intentionally blends in” to its neighbourhood in Vienna, whereas Borasi highlights Maltzan’s argument “that the architecture for [the homeless] should have a strong visual component” in order to combat the anonymity (to the non-homeless) of homeless people. Certainly his Star Apartments, also featured in the documentary, rise like a white concrete tree out of downtown L.A. — an instantly recognizable part of the built environment.

The rest of the CCA’s documentary series will explore the “intersecting conditions — loneliness, migration, segregation and ageing, among others” that shape contemporary urban life, and all of which cannot help but now be viewed differently. Browsing the online content for 2011–2012’s Imperfect Health: The Medicalization of Architecture (featuring paper sculptures of animal disease vectors by Andy Byers, a collaborator of Isabella Rossellini’s) or even returning to Our Happy Life with its examination of “emotional capitalism” and the era of the individual, the CCA’s research and programming can continue to offer some unique insights into how to navigate both our current seclusion and the task of eventually returning to our cities. ■

Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA) website

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