Tilewa Adeoye caught up with Cecilia Bischeri, Zuzana Kovar and Jessica Harris of AEcLab to discuss their ongoing research into the impact of COVID-19 on the experience of residential spaces and the need for reconsidering our homes as a result of the pandemic. Read on for more information on this particularly topical subject.
You jointly run Architecture Et cetera Lab (AEcLab). Tell me a bit about that.
Jessica: Established in 2020 by Cecilia, Zuzana, and I, the AEcLab is a practice-based research initiative that strives to bridge academia and architectural practice. Using various mediums such as, exhibitions, publications and workshops, we investigate topical research areas that draw on our individual interests and expertise, in an attempt to both establish a practice-based research culture at Griffith University (where we are all academics) and to produce research that is directly transferable to architectural practice. Cecilia is a registered architect in Italy and the Program Director for the Bachelor of Architectural Design program, Zuzana and I are part-time academics who also work in architectural practice (Zuzana in her own practice zuzana&nicholas, and I at Seven Mile Architects). The team currently operates from the Gold Coast.
You are currently researching the impact of COVID-19 on the experience of residential spaces and the need for reconsidering our homes as a result of the pandemic. Was this subject a direct product of last year’s health crisis?
Cecilia: Although the pandemic obviously forms the basis to this current project, choosing to work with this particular topic was also for strategic reasons. Our approach to research has always been finding topics that have the potential to flush out design themes that are perfect overlaps of our individual interests and expertise, as opposed to rotating areas of interest on a turn-by-turn basis, and COVID-19 presented an excellent opportunity. This way, we can operate in synergy and ensure that our potentials are unified to yield maximum results.
So, for this topic, the changing conditions of life brought on by the pandemic provided an opportunity to explore ideologies including, for me, rethinking city life and the things we consider essential for community living, and for Zuzana and Jess, tackling social living through alternative means like artistic and conceptual explorations, particularly in times like these when physical meetings are impossible.
Zuzana: We see the Lab as open in terms of projects we might engage in. So far, the projects that we’ve worked on have arisen out of current circumstances. We were really interested in starting the lab as a platform to unite practice and research, and we do so either by directly producing research that contributes to this realm or organizing events that are about practice-based research, and other variations of that. The first two projects have been about organizing events and bringing together people that straddle practice and academia, and getting them to produce work through either drawn or verbal presentation formats.
What is the methodology of the ongoing research?
Cecilia: From the onset, it was clear to us that this research was a long term effort and that immediate results were unlikely if not impossible; so we divided it into 3 phases. Firstly, in September last year, we organized a Think Tank with some academics, professionals and an artist for an initial exploration of thoughts and feelings on the effect of the pandemic on the residential habitat.
The second and current phase, titled, COVID Retrospect: A Reconsidered Residential Habitat, is the development of an exhibition based on extensive pragmatic conversation about changes in the approach to residential design after having lived through over a year of the pandemic. These experiences vary in extremity due to location, background and circumstances, and lend a layered complexity to the results.
The final phase will be a more formal conclusion of these explorations that we will put forward our findings to decision makers, in a bid to provide tangible insight on how to design to meet the changing needs of residential spaces, and better accommodate activities like working from home.
Zuzana: In the second phase, although we are being prescriptive in terms of the kind of work we are asking participants to produce, there is still a good amount of flexibility embedded into the project that allows for the participants’ diverse range of approaches. Some participants are quite pragmatic, while others are creative/ conceptual. This will produce a wide range of outputs. Essentially, what we are asking the participants to do is rethink an aspect (threshold, particular room or set of rooms) of a project that they have completed – built, unbuilt or theoretical; how COVID has impacted that part of the scheme and how they might redesign it. Each participant will have before and after panels. This is more tangible than the outputs of the Think Tank (first phase).
What was the make-up of the Think Tank?
Cecilia: It was made up of academics, practicing architects and the in-betweeners, figurative artists and an architectural blogger interested in investigating architecture through the lens of media.
Zuzana: We thought that a multidisciplinary perspective would broaden the scope of our considerations, offer us something that perhaps we could not see by ourselves and extend our thinking beyond architecture into other design fields; and our partnership with the Design Institute of Australia strengthened this.
Jessica: The multidisciplinary perspective was aimed at creating an avenue for the comparison of perspectives, and possibly bringing to light experiences that were different from our own frame of reference.
And were these experiences significantly different?
Cecilia: There were some interesting links between the participants and in many ways the discussion confirmed our suppositions. Each of the participants set up some thought-provoking questions surrounding the themes of the call out, for example, how to maintain levels of privacy in the domestic environment, how tools can connect us with people in other places and how our spaces can shift and adapt to our personal and intimate activities.
Is there a set timeline for the research phases?
Jessica: The nature of the research is such that each phase informs the timing of the next and hence, makes it difficult to put a set timeline on things. The 3 stages target different aspects of the research and produce additional pieces of the puzzle. The COVID Retrospect exhibition for the second phase is set to be held in January 2022 at Brickworks in Brisbane where Houses magazine are the event media partner. I expect that it will generate good analytical discussions surrounding the different ways each participant will approach the brief to redesign aspects of one of their pre-COVID dwellings through the lens of self-isolation. That together with the results of phase 1 will inform phase 3 which has no set deadline.
For the purpose of this research, is there a distinction between residential typologies and the varied experiences they might generate, for example, single-occupant homes and shared houses, single dwellings and multi residential buildings?
Zuzana: Not on our part. We did not impose these types of restrictions on the participants, so that might depend on the type of projects they have selected for exploration. We have also not actively tried to pick up on the distinction between typologies. Some participants are talking about using their own places of residence, including apartments and houses but I think that perhaps, the most common type would be single dwellings.
Jessica: Some participants are thinking more radically about occupation and I think that their proposals might have something to do with sharing spaces with different people and even different generations of the same family. So this idea might come through in some of the schemes.
When your research is complete, will it be available to the general public, say via your website?
Jessica: Yes, it will be. On our part, I think that getting the word out there for phase 2 is really important because it would be great to secure sponsorship and/or partner up with an organization that can help facilitate the research required for phase 3. Ideally, we would like our research to inform policy and for this we will require good publicity.