What will cities look like in the aftermath of COVID-19? What does the stress test of mass quarantine reveal about emerging dynamics in contemporary urbanism, from the platformization of public space to the new communalism of the precariat? Quarantinology is one answer to this question: a catalog of logistical interventions that explores the history of the quarantined city and speculates about its future.
The World on Lockdown
On April 3, 2020, the front page of the New York Times informed its readers that fifty percent of all humans on earth were under stay-home orders. Three weeks earlier, on March 11, when the WHO confirmed that COVID-19 had become a pandemic, the ability of cities worldwide to respond to the accelerating health emergency was placed under review. As March progressed, apartments, hotel rooms, cruise liners, and even parking lots became makeshift quarantine facilities as the provision of basic services—from heat and electricity to household goods and information—were sublimated to the task of containing a microscopic parasite.
Outbreaks of disease have been engines for social and material transformation throughout history. The 1771 plague led Catherine the Great to rebuild Moscow, establishing cemeteries, drainage canals, and embankments that brought the city more in line with Paris and London to the west. In the twenty-first century, European capitals look to Wuhan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and other territories with accessible testing and tracking regimes—plus recent experience of viral outbreaks—to assess how they might choose to adapt. As the planet processes social distancing, at once the most effective and most rudimentary immunological defense there is, we are confronted by the legacy of past quarantines buried within the urban fabric.
Quarantinology is a new discipline for the pandemic age. It’s a mode of experimental archeology that uses quarantine as a sensor to reveal the shifting composition of contemporary urbanism and speculate about its future. In the essay below, we excavate past and present quarantines in order to frame the city that might emerge after COVID-19. On the accompanying web platform, Quarantinology, our projections are realized as a catalog of hyperfunctional logics.
Like all archeology, the work is interpretative rather than predictive. Under quarantine, Ray Oldenburg’s second and third places—the spheres of work and leisure—collapse onto the first, the domestic. Public space becomes a screen onto which fears and fantasies are cast. Even if dolphins are not, in fact, flourishing in the canals of Venice, we have much to learn from the expectation that they might.
A Micro History of Quarantine
Quarantine is a between space—inconclusive and indefinite. Politically, it represents the legitimation of suspicion in physical space, mandating the creation of barriers designed to separate one group of people, animals or things from another. Quarantine, then, is purgatory: a sorting office defined by waiting and uncertainty where the distinction between safe and unsafe, healthy and sick, camp and bunker dissolves.
The word “quarantine” was coined in medieval Venice: a maritime republic that stretched along the Adriatic coast and was a key entry point for trade from Asia and the Middle East. Quaranta giorni, Italian for forty days, refers to the length of time vessels were required to drop anchor at a nearby island to prove they were disease-free and permitted to disembark.
To avoid piracy, quarantine stations known as lazarettos were established close to the harbor, facilitating the movement of sailors, stevedores, cargo, and medics around a terminal designed to reduce the spread of disease. Isolated chambers with outward-opening doors, peepholes, one-way corridors, and strict spatial protocols were among the tools deployed to manage the risk of exposure. These modular architectural systems are the ancestors of immigration hubs such as the USA’s Angel and Ellis islands as well as Australia’s notoriously stringent biosecurity and quarantine stations. They are filtration machines that process people and things—and metabolize fear of the unknown—geographically secured by a buffer of open water.
As the 1891 cholera epidemic spread across Europe, the US responded by tightening immigration rules and the hospital on Ellis Island was charged with the task of rooting out “loathsome infectious or contagious disease.” Isolating passengers on their ships was deemed both medically counterproductive and morally dubious by the US Public Health Service, and the hospital expanded after 1900 as admission rates increased in response to labor shortages. One irony of the history of quarantine is that despite its influence on the built environment, many of its lessons must be relearned. On March 3, the largest cluster of COVID-19 cases outside China was aboard the stranded cruise ship Diamond Princess, whose passengers were quarantined in the Port of Yokohama. Its poorly managed public spaces and inadequately filtered HVAC system produced what global health lawyer Roojin Habibi referred to as “a boiling pot of transmission.” Ultimately, the ship recorded 712 cases and 11 deaths.
Elsewhere, epidemiological memory has been better retained. The state-mandated quarantining of whole towns and cities, a process which began in Wuhan on January 23, was replicated autonomously by villagers in nearby Yuekou Town who constructed makeshift barriers from freshly dug earth—a sort of siege in reverse, constricting inward flows for fear of what might come with them. Europe’s last outbreak of bubonic plague arrived through the Port of Marseille in 1720. Fearing the spread, neighboring Avignon responded by building a two-meter-high wall, the significance of which reversed the following year as the plague entered Avignon and Marseille recovered.
This indeterminacy, like arriving at an airplane terminal before being admitted to the country in which it stands, can be exploited for strategic advantage. Free ports, export processing zones and intelligence black sites have historically emerged on interstitial terrain where legal, geopolitical, and economic frameworks overlap. Maquiladoras, for example, are factories established in northern Mexico which incorporate US customs and tariffs rules to enable the assembly of goods by cheap labor (a material analog to the 2008 film Sleep Dealer, in which Mexican workers pilot robots in the US after borders have closed.) This unique formulation—which filmmaker and artist Hito Steyerl refers to as “constructive instability” in reference to the “duty-free art” sold at free ports where European nations “imitate failed states” by “selectively losing control”—allows materials to arrive and commodities to leave without ever entering Mexico.
In each instance, the architectural shell—whether aluminum factory wall or concrete vault—becomes a legally immunized world, like a space shuttle protecting its interior from the lethal vacuum outside. Yet the possibility of leaks and some limited form of circulation is characteristic of all quarantines. Even the Lunar Receiving Laboratory, established by NASA in 1969 to quarantine both people and moon samples returning from the Apollo missions, was ultimately compromised. “We looked at this one crack in the floor,” Buzz Aldrin told reporters after his release. “There were ants crawling in and out.” With respect to disease, permeability becomes a necessity. The challenge is to prevent infected bodies from gaining access while guaranteeing that no infected bodies are trapped inside. In each case the determining factor is information.
How is Quarantine Implemented?
There are few elements of urbanism that have not been altered by the 2019-2020 pandemic. Thermal screening and monitoring is now a routine feature on the Moscow Metro. Supermarkets in Madrid are policed by stewards who impose capacity restrictions and maintain dedicated shopping hours for vulnerable groups. In France and Italy, an “attestation” is required for non-essential journeys. Drones heckle crowds in Belgian parks who fail to keep a safe distance and robots at Futian Station in Shenzhen rebuke travelers without masks. While the logics of quarantine remain the same, the technologies by which it is deployed have changed.
When the bubonic plague hit London in 1665, city authorities drafted “watchmen” to enforce social distancing, “searchers” to trace the chain of transmission, and “chirurgeons” to perform medical assessments and provide reliable data. Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year (1720) is interspersed with tables listing deaths and recoveries for every parish—models from which conclusions about “the curve” could be drawn and the effectiveness of “shutting up” determined. Then as now, entering shared spaces required negotiation of suspicion and trust. Moving the needle from one towards the other—whether between housemates in a shared kitchen or individuals and the state—is dependent upon functional sensing technologies.
At a basic level, all humans are sensors, culturally and physiologically attuned to the spread of disease. We recoil when people cough or sneeze, adjusting our behavior in response to symptoms we can detect. We perform abstract contract tracing calculations (“I probably picked this up at work”), a tool that remains sufficient until the deadliness of the marauding illness increases. Beyond direct medical testing—which in the case of COVID-19 has proven timely to produce, difficult to scale, and unevenly distributed—technological systems that track symptoms and risk of exposure have been much faster to develop and deploy. Faced with the triple bind between preventable mortality, state or corporate biosurveillance, and economic ruin, many have chosen to rewire existing sensing mechanisms with varying degrees of user consent.
In China, color-coded QR codes and GPS smartphone tracking are non-negotiable conditions for moving around the city. In Singapore, the government’s voluntary TraceTogether app uses Bluetooth to alert those who have come into contact with a confirmed COVID-19 case. In the US, epidemiologists Trevor Bedford and Richard Neher have analyzed COVID-19’s genomic structure—the virus mutates roughly twice per month—in order to make startlingly accurate predictions about infection rates in the absence of testing. Yet despite this promising work, Bedford still advocates in-home and drive-through testing in conjunction with anonymized GPS tracking via smartphone: an optional feature being built into OS updates from Google and Apple.
Of course, there is a danger that this sensing infrastructure will become a barrier itself, a tool capable of conditioning behavior beyond that which is necessary to combat disease. But too much focus on a technological fix coming down the pipeline—whose efficacy will always be contingent on proper use and complementary forms of sociality—means failing to recognize the immunological defenses being prototyped elsewhere.
When the 1665-66 plague arrived in the village of Eyam in northern England, carried by fleas in a ball of tailor’s cloth, residents agreed to the unprecedented decision to quarantine the entire village—despite the inevitable inward cost. Lockdown measures were imposed, including socially distant religious meetings and instructions for private burials, and the town’s perimeter was marked with boundary stones. Holes were drilled in the stones and filled with vinegar so neighbors could safely exchange food and medicine for “disinfected” coins: an early test run of the hygienically optimized interfaces that restaurants and customer-facing businesses worldwide have adopted this year to safely transact goods with minimal or zero contact.
The explosion of folk interactive design under COVID-19 has produced an outpouring of innovation enough to dent the ego of any urban design lab. Under quarantine, chalk marks and tape lines on the sidewalk marshall human traffic. Every doorway is an airlock, every window an aperture and orifice, mediating the transition between spaces of unknowingness. In February, protocols for safely entering and exiting one’s home began to circulate online, derived from industrial standards and infectious disease wards. Yet humans are vectors for forms of life we wouldn’t ordinarily consider pathological: microbes, seeds, eggs, and insect larvae, a shadow ecology that relies on hair, clothes, and skin for reproduction and distribution. The quadrilateral logic that is reorganizing urban populations—as though the restrictive monoliths imagined by Superstudio in the 1960s had been “hyperstitioned” into being—will disrupt planetary ecologies in unforeseeable ways. While it may be tempting to make special note of the barriers under construction, an equal number are poised to collapse.
Future Quarantine Urbanism
The 2020 pandemic lit the fuse for an implosion of public into private space, reconfiguring the human habitat at such speed it is as though the combustion engine or the Internet had materialized overnight. More of the city’s infrastructure than ever before is vying for physical and mental space within the home. The full apparatus of professional life—from coffee runs and stationery cupboards to brainstorms in virtual “break-out rooms”—must find its place alongside childcare, the ever-growing drip-feed online entertainment, and the gym. Medical diagnosis and treatment have exited the hospital to become yet one more browser tab. The stockpiling of toilet paper in private (ware)houses might signal the fragility of supply chains but it also reveals the inability of information delivery systems to metabolize anxiety in a moment of crisis.
Yet Western architecture has been preparing for mass un-wellness—to varying degrees of success—since Vitruvius argued all architects should study medicine in ancient Greece. In X-Ray Architecture (2014), historian Beatriz Colomina draws a line between tuberculosis and modernism. It was, she argues, the inclusion of wipe-clean metal and glass in sanatorium design that inspired the skeletal obelisks with which the period is most often associated. Mies van der Rohe, whose Glass Skyscraper for Friedrichstrasse, Berlin, resembles the light and shade of lungs under inspection, was an avid collector of x-ray images. The period’s architectural legacy can be mapped onto areas where TB did the most damage: in cities such as Paris, for example, where close to one in three people were thought to have contracted the disease.
What might a map of COVID-19 mortality reveal and what might it produce? What are the factors that distinguish these locations and how will they develop in response? The assumption that density produces worse outcomes is complicated by “successful” quarantines in Seoul and Hong Kong (successful at least in comparison with the sprawling suburbs in parts of western Europe and the US). There are clearly other variables at play: the availability of testing, the number of free hospital beds, medical staff, and equipment to protect them. But as designers, we should notice urban models that allow non-commingling flows to persist while minimizing risk.
Quarantintology is one attempt to answer this question: a catalog of logistical interventions that builds upon the history of quarantine to speculate about the city in an age of pandemics. Designed to resemble a deck of cards, Quarantinology asks how dual-use and mixed typologies—from disaster urbanism in Japan to Berlin’s Tempelhof Airfield (at once an airport and a park and a refugee shelter)—could produce a future in which we do not need to place homeless people in empty parking spaces. It asks which aspects of social life can be enhanced within the metaverse—from love and sex to music festivals and workspaces—intensifying the results to see how weird things could get. It addresses central concerns about surveillance, real estate, industrial design, and the city-as-platform, accepting contradiction and eccentricity as a condition of its method.
For example, if warehouses, lofts, and other post-industrial refits were a necessity that became an aspirational lifestyle for millennials in the 2000s and 2010s, “Cubicle Communalism” imagines opportunities for the precariat in the downtown offices abandoned by the shift to remote work. Instead of inhabiting single bedrooms in shared houses, why not cubicles in former office spaces? Elsewhere, “Military Lazarettos” considers a role for hospital ships owned by Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Peru, Russia, the USA, and Vietnam in containing future outbreaks, while “Designer Vegetables” models the impact of another pandemic—Panama Disease—already underway. “Radical Harvests” applies the delivery systems pioneered by Meituan Dianping in Wuhan to the food supply at scale. Where the “Amazon of services” installed contactless lockers and a ticketing system that included health reports from workers, it asks if this could extend to names, salaries, employee benefits, and carbon footprints, incorporating the full cost of importing labor across borders in a new labeling standard intended to expose hypocrisy and falsification in the supermarket aisles.
The words “community” and “immunity” developed out of the same root—the Latin “munus” being the tribute or gift one offers to earn a place in society. In order to immunize the city we must first of all retreat from it. That’s what quarantine is: a collective sacrifice administered at the individual level, whether symptomatic or not, to immunize the whole. “We ought to have a social compact,” Lawrence Gostin, director of the World Health Organization’s Collaborating Center on National and Global Health Law, recently told the New York Times. “If you’re sick, whether you’ve got COVID-19 or not, you should separate yourself from society. In exchange, we as a nation owe you the right to a humane period of separation, where we meet your essential needs like medicine, health care, food, and sick pay.” The tension between those who sacrifice and those who are “immune” will play a pivotal role in the months and years to come.