Whatever else it may be, our future condition will not be normal – new or otherwise – seen in any sort of historical context, says Paul Finch
Are you as fed up as I am about the phrase ‘the new normal’? I have an intense dislike of the abuse of words and language in respect of public policy and the debate surrounding it. Since when, by the way, did ‘data’ begin to be used as a plural rather than a collective noun? How has the word ‘So’ become the inevitable start of a response to any media interview question?
So what? you may ask, but when you start playing fast and loose with language, this transfers all too easily into a slap-dash approach to truth and logic. This column has noted before the malign effect of the phrase ‘affordable homes’ on a half-generation of politicians and cynical marketing executives within the world of volume housebuilders. The dishonesty of the phrase is matched by the hopeless failure to deliver what is described – a pitiful 7,000 or so units in London in the last recorded year.
Another pet hate is the use of the word ‘transparent’. I like the meaning it has in the phrase ‘I can see right through you’ but, of course, in public discourse it is a form of talismanic stone, used to judge organisations and people at all times. If you have not been ‘transparent’, then you must be up to something.
In a media culture where everything can be questioned and deconstructed except the structures, attitudes and operating behaviour of the media itself, there is an assumption that the public has a ‘right to know’ – except when it comes to the salaries or tax arrangements of media folk (and comedians) who, needless to say, are protected by contractual non-disclosure clauses. Pass the sick bag, Alice, as the veteran Fleet Street editor Sir John Junor used to say.
He would have enjoyed the current political furore, which must have increased newspaper sales. He might have quoted Macaulay’s dictum to describe the hysteria over Cummings and Goings: ‘We know no spectacle so ridiculous as the British public in one of its periodical fits of morality.’ (Note to trolls: I do not use nor follow anti-social media.)
But back to the idea of a future condition, strongly related to architecture, design and urban planning, which is confidently being described, to use the dread phrase, as ‘the new normal’. Whatever else it may be, it will not be normal, but abnormal, seen in any sort of historical context. With any luck, vaccines will soon return us to a version of our pre-Covid condition, just with far more debt, greater unemployment, and political dilemmas which will test all governments to the limit.
The architectural implications of social distancing represent a potentially lucrative series of workstreams
The architectural implications of social distancing have yet to be taken fully on board, but it is already clear that they represent a potentially lucrative series of workstreams for the profession. Thinking about access, circulation routes, location of cores, lavatory provision, space standards and so on are bread and butter matters for designers and city planners, but are given a new imperative as a result of public health policies.
Public health and safety (another dread pairing, but they are not synonymous) have been drivers of planning and design since the creation of cities, so there is precedent for the creative thinking now taking place about movement and occupation.
The ‘promenade architecturale’ has taken on a new significance in current circumstances: density, as stated last week, is less important than space and volume; intensity of use is to be avoided, at least for the moment. The virtues of multiple entrances and exits to buildings will be regarded as a bonus rather than as a ‘security’ problem. Thinking in section will reveal all sort of possibilities for low-cost retrofits, which are likely to generate at least some new business for the design professions.
At an urban scale, the future of high streets, redundant shopping centres and desirable public spaces present opportunities as well as challenges for creative designers, provided there is someone left who can commission the work and pay the fees.
Let’s hope that in addressing these potential futures, we can use language that ‘keeps it real’.