By Gabe Derksen, Architect, Associate, Education + Recreation Studio Lead
It’s been said that the COVID-19 pandemic has had the effect of “pressing the Fast-forward button” on social and technological changes that have been waiting in the wings for years. There’s evidence to support this of course – our overnight reliance on distance education (new double meaning intended) and the growing acceptance of remote doctor’s appointments are two examples of major shifts that seem poised to stay with us in some form going forward. As designers, we find ourselves challenged now with how to best adapt the physical environment to support these and many other changes, and to the extent possible anticipate which changes will take hold to become part of the “new normal”, versus those that will be remembered as temporary or transitional measures.
In thinking about what the future will look like, I have to admit that I’ve taken some comfort and pleasure in exploring the “Retro-Futuristic” illustrations of what others in the past have imagined the future to hold. Right or wrong about what they portray, these enticing images strike all the right nerves – at once nostalgic, being hopelessly rooted in the time they were created (and often hilariously wrong because of this), and at the same time very forward thinking with an optimism about the role of technology, architecture and infrastructure in our lives that I think is important to keep in focus. Come, explore this diversion of past futures with me!
Retro-Futurism – Getting it Right, Mostly
Sometimes they get it right, if for the wrong reason. In the illustration above we see a ‘technology-rich’ home classroom environment from 1960, touted then as being “closer than we think!”. This was imagined not as a quarantine measure of course, but as a way to help keep up with the overwhelming need for new schools in the 1950s and 60s as the baby-boomers came of school age, by keeping students at home. For anyone working from home now while managing all things student life, the image rings true – the tug of war between online assignments and the call of a baseball game just outside the window, and the Mother’s role in finding the right balance. It’s eerily bang on.
Another great example is the vision above for remote Healthcare from the 1920’s, anticipating the need for increased efficiency and safety in the system using a combination of radio, an early television and some type of bizarre “touchless touch” device shared between doctor and patient. The self-driving cars that are upon us now have also been imagined for decades. Pictured above is an early version showing a family enjoying a boardgame together without a care for the road at all, the automobile transformed into a showcase for family life.
Retro-Futurism – Getting it Wrong
Other times these visionaries get it all wrong though, or present an unwelcome vision of the future from our current perspective. In 1958 the Toronto Star printed this now very amusing image of a “Rocket Mailman”. The desire to increase the speed of delivery and communication in general was there, but it was so deeply rooted in the rocket age it couldn’t foresee the shift to bytes and pixels rocketing all around us now.
The concept of a drive-thru grocery store is something that has a very direct impact on both our built environment and our day-to-day social interactions, and to many experiencing the pandemic protocols of the current grocery shopping experience this likely has some appeal. It’s something that has been envisioned since the 1920s and was actually attempted without success in car-centric Los Angeles – pictured below left. In my view, this is a vision of the future that creates a spark of interest, but falls short of improving the design of the world around us or our quality of life. While we do need to maintain our distance from one another in the short-term, something we are coming to value even more so now is the direct social interaction that used to underly all the rhythms of our day-to-day lives – and not just at the grocery store. The future we collectively imagine going forward need to value and include this direct interaction too.
If it’s true that this pandemic is accelerating us forward into a future (retro or otherwise) where technology is used to create physical distance between us all when needed, it will be just as important to envision uses for technology that will help to re-connect us. As for the built environment around us, our role as architects and designers now is to help restore trust in the use of the public realm, to promote health and safety, and to allow flexibility in the use of the spaces we create going forward. And through it all, we will do well to be realistic about our ability to accurately predict the future, and maybe even have a sense of humour about it.
Gabe is an Architect at Number TEN Architectural Group