Buildings + Germs

… architecture and more specially buildings, are rather poor opponents against pandemics. Urban planning seems to have a shot, but buildings – their scale, their materials, their systems, are weak at best and more likely a fool’s errand; wasting time, effort and money to combat a foe they cannot defeat at exactly a time when resources are slim.
Macrophage Engulfing Tb Bacteria.

The impact of disease upon the built world is greater than we generally appreciate. Architecture and more broadly city planning has consistently – and at times famously – been implemented to respond or react to the spread of disease. Several key examples are written into the urban fabric of cities around the world – New York and Paris come quickly to mind. (More on this later).

But the apparent moral to this story, or at least what appears to be evident to this author, is that architecture and more specially buildings, are rather poor opponents against pandemics. Urban planning seems to have a shot, but buildings – their scale, their materials, their systems, are weak at best and more likely a fool’s errand; wasting time, effort and money to combat a foe they cannot defeat at exactly a time when resources are slim.

Historical swings between feast, famine and epidemics have been defining and devastating periods within human evolution. As Manuel De Landa illustrates in A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History, once we had grown past the daily threat of macro-fauna predators, the more enduring threat came from “micro-predators” – the diseases that ate the flesh from within (De Landa, 109). Unfortunately at precisely this evolutionary moment (late medieval period) emerging trends towards trade, agriculture, urbanism and ultimately capitalism created “epidemiological laboratories” where microorganisms were offered “the perfect habitat to evolve novel variants” which were either benign, destroyed their hosts, inadvertently transmitted via trade, or accidentally weaponized against vulnerable rivals (De Landa 110). On cities and their inextricably intertwined relationship with microorganisms De Landa quotes a few lines form William McNeill:

Only in communities of several thousand persons, where encounters with other attain sufficient frequency…can such diseases persist. The communities are what we call civilized: large, complexly organized, densely populated, and without exception directed and dominated by cities. Infectious…diseases…are therefore the disease of civilization par excellence: the peculiar hallmark and burden of cities and of countryside in contact with cities.

William McNeill, Plagues and Peolpes, p. 45 in De Landa 110.

To say then that we have “created” the means of our current plight is more than just hyperbole. But the Novel Corona Virus didn’t come from a lab in China. It came from the built up accumulation of 1000 years of humans living within the ever increasing flows of urbanism. The foundational tools of modern life, are the very ingredients to foment viral pandemics. As it was in the past and is today. But, and to hue closer to the theme of this web-project, isn’t here something that design and/or architecture can do? Why are our architectural practices and struggles against the raging disease (outside of the medical industry) so futile? Probably a more accurate question would be: “why would we think architecture would be able to respond at all?” Aside from a kind of hubristic disregard for the scale difference – feet and inches against microns – and our own arrogance that we can control complex ecological systems with brick and mortar, our biggest mistakes are: 1) the presumption that we are singular organisms; and 2) that we will behave differently from any other animal.

On the first point, the difficult part of any communicable disease is that WE, are the vectors of transmission. We carry the pathogen – the virus or bacteria – within us. And this is nothing abnormal. Under normal healthy circumstances we’re happily spreading bacteria, mites, and other micro-organisms around. We are always more than just a single organism and this is a factor that design often forgets is rather ill-equipped to address. One line of thinking, one championed in this blog is to embrace rich, diverse ecologies – to foster symbiotic and redundant biological systems to prevent disease from escalating to the point of pandemic. But, once we’re past that point the design answers available to us are quite simple: distance, isolation and quarantine.

And this brings us to the second point: we will behave just like any other animal in a pandemic and it’s to our never-ending chagrin that we continue to look around the world say “Nah, we’re not animals. We’ve got this.” History and biology seem to suggest otherwise. In another post we’ll look more closely at various efforts in architecture and urban planning to address pandemics but firstly we’ll take a quick look at how other animals adapt and respond to viral invasions (that’s why you’re reading this… right?).

We’ve come upon a fascinating review from the Royal Society Publishing that outlines a variety of the ways that the built environment affects both the prevention and the containment of chronic and infectious disease. There’s some discussion of chronic disease and the modification of Human behavior but the pertinent part for today is their analysis of animal societies and their attempts to identify and address viral contagions. There are many good little nuggets in here, one particularly around design as it relates to the the prevention of disease in human around page 8. But, the section of prevention of Chronic Disease in animals is golden. Just a few snips, read it for yourself here.

  • Certain building materials, such as plant parts with antibacterial or antifungal properties, are integrated into animal nests to protect the inhabitants from disease [127].
  • Woodants use resin from coniferous trees as nesting material.This resin inhibits the growth of bacteria and fungi and enhances the survival of the nest’s inhabitants [128].
  • Honey-bees incorporate resin from plants into the wax that forms their hive, thereby reducing the bees’ investment in the expression of immune function genes [129].
  • Several bird species include green aromatic vegetation in their nest materials to reduce parasite load [130–133]
  • and wood rats place California bay foliage in their nests to reduce the abundance of ectoparasites [134].

But most interestingly, and the parallels just continue to develope…

Removing vectors of infection from the nest, such as waste,
excretions and dead or sick individuals, is common in animals, especially in social insects. Honeybees and many ant species remove dead individuals from their hive or nest, a behaviour that extends the lives of the remaining colony members. Ants and bees can detect diseased individuals and behave aggressively towards them until they leave the nest. However, aggression is not always required and, in some ant species, sick individuals will remove themselves from the nest, without interacting with nest-mates.

Pinter-Wollman N, Jelic´ A, Wells NM. 2018 The impact of the built environment on health behaviours and disease transmission in social systems. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 373: 20170245.

Distancing, separation, quarantine, light and fresh air.

It would appear that in the case of a micro-organism onslaught that whether you’re a bee, an ant or a human, that segmentation, separation, and isolation are the most effective strategies. And to the extent that urban planning and architecture can support these initiatives we might have a fighting chance against our micro-biome.

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