‘The moment we go indoors we start constructing the conditions for pandemic’

The University is no stranger to the link between illness and architecture. In the fall of 2020, Princeton made physical changes to its buildings in response to the pandemic, including plexiglass and wall installations in shared spaces. Among the University’s ongoing construction projects is a 74,700-square-foot health center that will feature floor-to-ceiling glass walls, a green roof with outdoor seating, and cloister gardens, according to The Architect’s Newspaper. Openness was a priority in the building plans: The central hub — connecting the existing Eno Hall with a new southern wing — will be a three-story atrium. 

Princeton professor of architecture history Beatriz Colomina
Princeton University, Office of Communications, Denise Applewhite (2009)
In a Dec. 6 lunchtime seminar sponsored by the Program in Latin American Studies and held at the School of Architecture, Professor Beatriz Colomina asked students and other attendees to consider how even buildings inhabited by mostly healthy bodies are inherently “sick.” 

“There is no architecture without disease,” she said. “Sick architecture is about the intimate relationship between these two.” 

Against a backdrop of the Renaissance Vitruvian Man, an ideal human figure based on the writings of the ancient Roman architect Vitruvius, Colomina explained that “architecture has always been understood in terms of the body.” 

In the early 20th century, white walls, glass rooms, and sunlight became the standard treatment and prevention for tuberculosis. Ripolin white paint used in hospitals was thought to have antimicrobial properties that disinfect the unseen and visually reflect thoughts of hygiene and purity. Physical dirt could be easily identified and removed, placing the sick body, or at least the mind, in a clean space.

Today, modern sanatoriums like Aino and Alvar Aalto in Paimio, Finland, try to replicate and improve architecture’s “curing” effects. But these same structures can promote a rapid spread or perception of illness. Occupied spaces intended to treat disease might incubate new pathogens or have a psychological effect that isn’t palliative. In the 19th century, restrictive walls and corridors in La Salpêtrière confinement hospital built up patients’ seclusion while directing viewers’ line of sight towards the wards, said Ph.D. student Marie de Testa. Even for buildings and people with healthy, Vitruvian-like proportions, sickness is normal: “The moment we go indoors we start constructing the conditions for pandemic,” Colomina said. “In the moment we are claiming to produce conditions of health, we produce disease.” 

Research presented by six Princeton postdoctoral students in “Sick Architecture,” a Humanities Council Magic Project, explored building design and function within a history of public health. (An online collection of essays is available on e-flux Architecture.) Dante Furioso’s “Sanitary Imperialism” considered the relationship between social hierarchy and mosquito control in Panama, while Shivani Shedde related dwelling structure to family planning, showing how 1970s housing policy in India tried to limit the reproductive growth of poorer communities by coercing them into smaller, substandard units. Angela M. Brown relocated the discussion to 2022. She argued that the Puerto Rican home is weakened by natural disasters, pollution, and utopian ideals that ignore a history of colonialism. Immunocompromised in the same way as a body, it must find new ways of adapting to the threats of modernization and the environment. 

Buildings contain both prior sickness and future disease, all dependent on confined, interior space. But we can easily forget the histories of these sick architectural spaces, Colomina said. The phenomenon, which she termed “collective amnesia,” happens when we see each new pandemic or epidemic as a historical first. 

She points to the image of a modern field hospital, the IFEMA exhibition complex in Madrid, converted in 2020 to an ICU and series of bed stations for 5,500 COVID-19 patients. As soon as the emergency is over, we begin forgetting again, Colomina continued. “Masks were actually very common in the 1918 flu epidemic,” she said. “Sickness has always been a part of our lives.”