Plexiglass bubbles hover over diners’ heads in restaurants. Plastic pods, spaced six feet apart, separate weightlifters in gyms. Partitions of all kinds are creeping up in workplaces.
As offices, restaurants, bars and businesses reopened after months of lockdowns and closures, a new phenomenon emerged, one that I’ve come to think of as ‘blocked-off design’. It’s design and layout that aims to construct and enforce distancing in a somewhat makeshift way. It’s characterised by partitions, sheer walls, six-foot markers. As a visual language, it’s defined by barriers and blockage — physical reminders that spaces where we once went to mingle with others are now fraught, and that even in public, isolation is necessary.
The objects and design solutions for this new market range from the totally absurd — massive hooped skirts with diameters of six feet — to the practical and even old-fashioned, like the installation of walls in office places. ‘You’re kind of seeing the resurrection of the cubicle,’ said Paul Ferro, CEO at Form4, an architecture firm that is working with clients including Google on physical plans for bringing workers back into their offices. (Not necessarily in the near-term: Google announced that employees won’t be forced to return to offices until July 2021.)
Ferro noted that it may not exactly be cubicles as usual, and that the plans include experimental designs that would also try to limit exposure from all sides and address the potential of aerosol transmission of the coronavirus. ‘Imagine a cubicle that goes up to five or six feet, and then imagine attaching a canopy over that as well,’ Ferro said. ‘In an environment where you don’t necessarily want to build from a permanent point of view, we’re asking vendors to think about creating an attached element.’
The market for partitions and screens and other temporary attachments has exploded in recent months. A refrigeration company in Missouri pivoted almost entirely to installing plexiglass in offices. Portable pods that can be installed like phonebooths in individual offices are selling out. An architectural company called Mockett is marketing a ‘door handle cuff’ and foot pulls for lower cabinet doors to limit touching.
Most of these design ideas have yet to be implemented at scale, and those that have been are so new that it’s hard to know what will work and what won’t. Scepticism is warranted, especially for the more gimmicky quick-fix solutions. The architecture critic Kate Wagner coined the term ‘coronagrifting’ to describe some of the more ridiculous, cheap mock-ups of so-called ‘design solutions’. Some of these — hovering shields in reopened restaurants, for instance — are also a physical manifestation of what Derek Thompson of the Atlantic dubbed ‘hygiene theater’. A low partition between us and our neighbouring gymgoer might make us feel safe while actually providing little or no real protection from a virus that is mostly airborne. We’re still breathing the same air as we lift our weights. This false sense of security can cause us to lose sight of the things we actually can do to avoid the virus — like staying away from the gym.
For a space to be safe for large gatherings, the solutions will have to go beyond new attachments, or what Ferro called a ‘more major evolution’. He noted that updated ventilation systems in the office have been a major topic of conversation with clients, as has the possible addition of UV light that might help kill some viral particles. Other solutions they’ve considered are updated furniture layouts and even new shapes for tables that might allow for more distancing during meetings. All in all, in this rearranging and reconfiguring of the office, there’s a lot of possibility for improving the open-plan design that has become dominant in recent decades.
In social spaces, there’s something that feels more sinister in all this blockage. It can be reminiscent of the kind of hostile architecture that has been employed in public spaces to subtly (or sometimes more overtly) restrict the access of certain populations, like unhoused people, to public space. There is now a real necessity to keep ourselves apart — and reminders about distance in public space are not inherently hostile. But they can be. If a pub is segmented by partitions meant to resemble small rooms that cordon you off from other people who might be vectors for disease, it would be reasonable to wonder: why am I here at all? What is the point of being in a public space if I’m shielded from other people, who are ostensibly the point of participating in public life? Or, perhaps the really urgent question is: why is this space open at all if it can’t safely fulfil its purpose?
Perhaps the most bizarre and poignant example of blocked-off design I have seen is a pseudo-space helmet that has emerged, under the name, ‘Personal Air Purifying Shield’. A Toronto-based company, VYZR Technologies, is selling this hazmat helmet, which boasts anti-fog windows, hospital-grade air purifiers, and even a cooling fan. It is priced, for a limited time offer at $379, though it is on backorder until November. A banner on the company’s website notes that it is receiving high order volumes and may not be able to respond to enquiries right away. The popularity of this object almost feels like the return of armour; the term ‘shield’ is quite literal if you zip yourself into a personal air purifier. In this case, the armour is worn against an enemy that’s in one sense invisible, a set of viral particles in the air, but that has also become embodied in the other people you might encounter as you move through the world.