Life After COVID-19: How the Pandemic May Reshape the World as We Know It
The Mani Peninsula in Greece, one of the southernmost points of Europe, is a wild and desolate place. Until fairly recently, the region—dominated by impenetrable mountains and dotted with ancient tower-houses—could only be accessed by sea. The Maniot clans that built these structures lived through centuries of foreign invasions, brutal winds, droughts, and a culture of violent blood feuds—conditions that left indelible marks on their architecture.
Almost all houses near the town of Vatheia are built with thick stone walls and accompanied by tall towers with narrow, defensive windows. As late as the 19th century, village bells would ring to announce the start of family vendettas, and the inhabitants of these tower houses would retreat into their shelters to prepare for sieges and gunfire between homes.
The folk-poetry of Mani is dominated by the funeral laments of women, who sang about the sorrows of violence, poverty, and widowhood.
I’ve been thinking about the tower homes of Mani during this time of social distancing, and have noticed curious parallels and contrasts between our world and this strange place—where families lived in tiny stone citadels, shaping their small and isolated living places to survive in an inhospitable land.
Today, pandemic health policy has atomized our society into its most essential clusters: small groups of family members, roommates, couples, and countless individuals scattered in between. To many of us, sheltering in place has meant rediscovering the allegiances that underpin our lives, as well as the interior spaces from which we gaze out. We are closer than ever to the basic support structures that ensure our survival: our shelter, our work, our communities.
Just as the siloed conditions of the Maniot clans shaped their homes and urban lives, this period of social distancing—and our retreat indoors—will forever change the way we inhabit this earth. It will give us an opportunity to redesign the way we work, and redefine what we consider home.
Challenging Gendered Notions of Work
Trapped between the mountains and the sea, the world of the Maniots was small and resisted change. They lived in patriarchal family units, and much of their work happened near home and was shared between men and women—such as farming terrace orchards of olives and raising livestock. In their isolation, they continued living this way far into the 19th century.
In other parts of the world at this time, inhabitants of industrializing nations shifted from work completed at home to wage labor in factories and offices. Capitalists could start large enterprises focusing on niche products or services to meet specialized demands. These could be distributed far from centralized factory or office locations at scale due to new transportation and communications technologies, such as railroads, steamships, and the telephone.
The industrial revolution and a nascent middle class precipitated a trend toward what historians dub the ideology of separate spheres: a division between the private world—associated with women and the home—and a public world associated with men, work, and politics. Because women’s work at home was unpaid, it was no longer seen as "real" work.
At the macro-level, this increasing division led to the suburbanization of cities, especially as the rise of the automobile allowed workers to further exaggerate these distances.
In a 2014 paper published in Work and Occupations, scholars Andrea Rees Davies and Brenda D. Frink trace this history and argue that housework remains severely undervalued today. They note how the stigma behind requesting flexible hours, remote work, and paid time off reflects outdated ideas about "feminine" work coming secondary to "masculine" work, a condition exacerbated today as professional workers of all gender identities are expected to be available round-the-clock, making it harder to balance work and home responsibilities.
As Lucia Graves argues in a recent opinion piece in The Guardian, the burden of women has only become heavier during the pandemic: "Study after study has shown that even as women have stepped forward in the workforce, in married heterosexual couples women still shoulder the bulk of household chores." She cites 2019 US Census Bureau Data that shows 80% of single-parent families are headed by single mothers, a Gallup poll from January that suggests that women in heterosexual relationships are more than seven times as likely to care for their children as men, and a report from the United Nations that found that women take on 2.6 times as much unpaid caregiving and domestic work as their heterosexual partners.
With approximately half of the world population in lockdown, those of us with the privilege of working from home are experiencing the collapse of these separate spheres. Our living spaces have turned into offices, and those we once engaged with in public have been invited, through screens, into our homes. In this new status quo, we constantly peer into the professional lives of our loved ones and into the private lives of our coworkers.
The ideology of separate spheres has been irrevocably breached, but will this change our gendered perception of work? Studies have shown that disasters can trigger significant changes in traditional, patriarchal structures and open opportunities for the empowerment of women. But a critical rise of domestic abuse cases during the pandemic demonstrates the counteracting violence that women face at times of crisis.
In this new status quo, we constantly peer into the professional lives of our loved ones, and into the private lives of our coworkers.
This spatial and social confusion presents us with an opportunity to reconsider our relationship to our work and home, as well as our relationships to each other—and to the planet we inhabit.
Preparing for Lives That Are Mostly Indoors—and Online
We can chart a course forward with the guidance of American chemist and industrial engineer, Ellen Swallow Richards. As the founder of the home economics movement of the 19th century, Richards used scientific principles to study domestic work and the relationships between men and women, families, communities, and their environment.
She is recognized today as defining another related field of study—human ecology—which she described as "the knowledge of right living."
As Richards wrote in her 1905 book, The Cost of Shelter: "This is the beneficent result of the age of the machine. Man has discovered that he can not only change his environment, but that by this change he can modify himself."
Richards argued that the houses of her day were not suitable for the needs of contemporary families and housewives, and proposed three steps for alleviating crowded and polluted living conditions:
- A recognition of needs to be addressed
- An awakening of social conscience to the duty of supplying these needs
- The movement of capital toward fulfilling these requirements
We need a similar inquiry to address the needs of a society that has retreated indoors, and which will emerge deeply changed after the pandemic has run its course.
Even before the time of social distancing, studies showed that Americans, on average, spent 90% of their time indoors and 10 hours each day in front of screens. In a 2018 issue of The Human Ecology Review, academics from around the world reckoned with our increasing reliance on indoor environments and technology. Among these was Daniel Stokols, founding dean of the School of Social Ecology at the University of California, Irvine. His analysis of tech in the home attempted to demonstrate how the cybersphere—the virtual communities that seep into our lives through texting, social media, and email—is now fully "interwoven with individuals’ place-based environments."
Sokols emphasized that the cybersphere today has "as profound an influence on a person’s day-to-day activities, social behavior, and well-being as one’s physical (non-virtual) surroundings."
It is important to give the design of these virtual spaces the same considerations we give to our urban and architectural environments—to consider them equally impactful on our mental and physical health, especially when these technologies are the only things giving us a semblance of public life in the confines of our homes.
While these technologies have fulfilled social needs, they have also made our increased reliance on indoor life possible, and have enabled the growth of a convenient "shut-in economy" which relies on the work of thousands of underpaid gig workers to deliver supplies.
With all that in mind, what interior or architectural needs are emerging today in our time of quarantine?
- Access to fresh air and green spaces through balconies, courtyards, and indoor greenery
- Interior spaces for activities such as exercise and meditation to promote physical and mental wellness
- Spaces that are free of technology, which push us into conversation and engagement without the "hearth" of television or the phone screen
- Homes with separate living and working environments that help us mediate our work/life balance, and which provide us with privacy from cohabitants
At a greater, cultural scale, our entire concept of home needs to extend beyond the confines of our dwellings and into our neighborhoods. This was the conclusion of a 2013 series of essays published in the Architectural Review, which anticipated an "epochal transition" in the way we relate to our environment.
Every day, we hear stories of neighborly acts of kindness and cooperation. We need to grab onto these moments to counter the increasing siloing of our society into the indoors. We need to reject the darkest aspect of the urban condition: that in tall apartment buildings only yards apart, people can be suffering alone, without the comfort of community.
Lasting Lessons on Climate Change and Social Equity
A lot has changed in the Mani Peninsula. Roads linked the region to mainland Greece in the 1970s, and the country’s tourism economy has slowly seeped in. Today, renovated tower houses are popular Airbnb destinations, although the town of Vatheia remains mostly abandoned, doubling as a hotel and ruin. Many of the original clans of the village broke up as new generations looked for work in larger cities and abandoned their homes.
Nonetheless, several miles north of Vatheia near the settlement of Exo Nymfio, a recent renovation of a tower home can serve as a symbolic starting point for the kind of efficient, ecological design we need to embrace today.
Designed by Elena Zervoudakis and her Athens-based studio Z-Level Architecture, the renovation is austere, using locally sourced materials to create open-but-separate living spaces with plenty of ventilation and natural sunlight.
"This is a project that I am particularly fond of," says Zervoudakis. "The reason being that it put me in touch with the fundamental, the essential. The challenge was to create something in the middle of nowhere from absolutely nothing but history."
Zervoudakis describes how the lack of infrastructure made self-sufficiency, ecological management, and bioclimatic design mandatory. The difficult and inaccessible terrain surrounding the home led to a design approach in which every intervention had to be necessary and materially efficient.
Difficult times and environments call for simple and resourceful solutions. They also give us an opportunity to redesign entire systems of labor, distribution, and consumption.
Experts have warned that some of the eye-opening benefits of the economic deceleration brought about by the pandemic—reports of blue skies and clear waters in cities around the world—will be short-lived unless we completely rethink our obsession with growth. By building on our experience of social distancing, self-isolation, and quarantine, we can envision better ways of living in order to continue the "accidental" progress we’ve made in the way we care for the planet.
Across the United States, local farmers with home delivery services are seeing significant spikes in demand as people look for alternatives to grocery stores. The increasing adoption of remote working has unveiled many of the inefficiencies of working in offices—such as the many hours spent on daily commutes. Commuting less and sourcing locally are just two examples of economic shifts that could be prolonged to significantly reduce our carbon footprint.
We are also witnessing a revelatory upheaval in the way we have divided our private and public worlds, one that could allow us to completely redraw the interpersonal boundaries of our lives. Will we have learned anything when we spill out onto the streets? When we return to our offices, will we advocate for the right to be closer to our families, neighbors, and homes? Will we fight for our right to commute less, and to travel more? Will men step up, and take their share of domestic labor? Will we support essential workers, whose labor has proven vital to our survival?
Or will we return to the status quo, widening our political divides?
This can be the beginning of a new way of life. Our continued prosperity is at stake—as is the way we work and make a home out of this earth.
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