THE CITY IN SUSPENDED 
ANIMATION
Our planet has just lived through a defining epoch in human history.
We asked the architect and designer Giulio Ceppi, a teacher at Politecnico di Milano, for his views on how we engaged with the built environment during the months of lockdown.


"Unpredictability has been the real protagonist in the events of recent months.
Our experience of the pandemic has shown, for the umpteenth time, how a small, localized outbreak can rapidly take on global dimensions. It's an extraordinary and devastating phenomenon, a wave that turned into a tsunami.
In a short space of time, the whole planet has found itself confronted with a new way of engaging with its cities when confronted by the invisible threat of a virus that's difficult to trace or confine, that has plunged our cities into a state of suspended animation: their empty streets the visible symbol of a civilization put on hold. The strongest sensation in these surreal times is one of impotence in the face of events.
Our failure to acknowledge the violence and the extent of the phenomenon as early as we should have, and the disarray and errors of judgement which accompanied subsequent events – events that even now our politicians and leaders have difficulty explaining – have generated a widespread sense of helplessness."

What does an architect think when he surveys a city in lockdown?
What do you think the consequences of this long hiatus will be, immediately and in the long term?

"Cities are scarier places since Covid-19 came along. The pandemic will surely prompt at least a partial return to low-density and rural living. A new balance will be struck between the opposing forces - influx and outflux - acting on our cities. There will be many changes. Some will be scarcely noticeable at first, others will become manifest as accelerations in changes that were already underway; and others will be more evident now than they were before, an amplification of distant echoes.

We're talking of home working, online shopping, remote management, the whole digital thing… It all takes on a new dimension, new meaning.
And from meaning it's a short step to value. Our long imprisonment in our rooms, our homes, streets, and patios has invested many things with new value.
From the baker's shop at the corner of the street to the trusty greengrocer who delivers to our doorsteps or the rules of neighbourly conduct, the proxemics of our immediate environment are changing. Many forms of interaction now seem absurd in light of digital and environmental technologies, factors which have more or less imposed themselves on our personal reckoning of the opportunities open to us on a daily basis: opportunities that are now more hybrid than ever, a blend of analogue and virtual, grounded in the ability to understand the value of every element so we can use it better."

How do you view the role played by technology in the months of lockdown?

"We've lived through a formidable demonstration of what I like to call the Latin character, in an unforeseen situation and an improvised setting, where technology became an instrument for getting close to people instead of keeping them at a distance. It was a kind of “compulsory alternative”, a hybrid mediating between the physical and digital worlds. Technology used at roots level, at the service of people, uniting them instead of dividing them, changing the valencies of interpersonal distance.
On this subject I'd recommend a wonderful book, a classic of social anthropology that was first published in 1966 but has much to say about the current situation: The Hidden Dimension by Edward T. Hall."

Let's return to a subject that's especially dear to you, the via latina. What kind of key for the interpretation of our territorial roots does it offer us, from an anthropological perspective on modern society?

"In the occasional idle moment these last few months, I've tried to think about the present by looking back through history and tracing a chronology that would assist in the comprehension of the things that are happening now. I re-read some of the great thinkers of Antiquity. 

Back in the 4th century BC, in Greece - and then later for the Romans - the worst misfortune that could befall a man was ostracism. A temporary exile of ten years, imposed on those held to constitute a danger to their city. Many illustrious Romans of the Imperial period, from Cicero to Lucretius, endured alone what we've endured collectively. Danger stalks the streets of our cities, and we have been exiled - in fact we have self-exiled, paradoxical as that may seem.
So what did the Romans do to while away their time in exile? They read and wrote letters, thousands and thousands of them, in their desperate endeavours to keep in touch with the rest of the world. We did the same thing: using blogs, social media, e-mail, text messages and so on, to communicate, inform, protest, and placate, often in a spirit of irony.
Technology has taught us a valuable lesson: it has helped us a lot, but it's like with school, it's taught the kids how to approach distance learning in a more conscious fashion, learning how to use a powerful medium whose potential deserves further exploration. I myself had to do the same, with my 53 students at the Politecnico. A hybrid school."

So what now?

"I'm already working on a series of projects which put the relational, human factor back at the centre of things. I remember how Achille Castiglioni used to say that designing a stool is not just giving form to an object: it's imagining all the new ways the stool will allow other people to live their lives.
Recent experience will make us attach more value to the quality of human relations, without forgetting the economic, political, symbolic and affective aspects… and design will increasingly represent a form of therapy, a way for us to come together again once the trauma has passed. It will pay more attention to people. It won't just be an exercise in formal poetics. It's unlikely we'll ever view excess and surplus the same way again. I like to think we'll pay more attention to the way we relate to objects and space: a different world is waiting for us, a more inclusive world where technology is available to all. Let's hope it's truly a better world, where everyone's learned something from their experience of a violent and invisible enemy."

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