Learning from travel - Spatial Design in a Pandemic

A Sicilian Railway Station - Bagheria

When my father was dying, I spent long days at a hospice. I spent the hours he was sleeping in the visitor’s room down the hall from his room. I was working. I had my laptop plugged into the power-board that supported the kettle. I sat at the large wooden desk that faced the wall. Over my right shoulder, I had a view over the courtyard. Occasionally, a social worker would need to bring a patient’s relative into the room to sign papers; then I would vacate the desk and wander downstairs and through the tiny garden; but in the main, the visitor’s room was empty. When my father was awake, he would send the day nurse to find me there; I would pack up my work into the corner of the desk and return to it once he fell back to sleep. The carpet was deep blue with tiny yellow flecks; the wooden chairs were covered in soft, mustard-shade jacquard upholstery. Sometimes, I’d sit in his private room with a manuscript in my lap while he dozed, lifting my head when he stirred and waving when he opened his eyes to say I was still there. Work can be like this, especially for women; and, more so, during this Coronavirus pandemic. Workspace has needed to be convertible - flexible, transportable, non-defined, yet suitable. Spaces themselves have come under pressure to adjust, adapt, and be re-defined.

In my own apartment the changes have been minimal but significant. My husband has been ‘home’ during the day, so I moved my work desk from the living room and long jaunts at the kitchen table to the bedroom because he had transformed the backyard into a workshop, rendering the large open space living room and kitchen table part of the fly-zone. He wears a path from the backyard to the garage with a hundred tiny trips a day through the house. In the bedroom, my desk has been wedged between the bed and the large window that overlooks the front garden and the street. It is a pleasant space to work in, with a door that closes for quiet and privacy; there is access to plenty fresh air. However, this room gets the morning sun, which throws light on the computer screen and in the afternoon, children play in the street making it hard to focus when the large front window is open.

These are little problems compared to those of people who have no home, people who are living in a car, or those who are struggling to create work space in a home with young children, forced to study at home. But even these considerations are only part of the major rethink of our spaces. Restaurants - remodeling for take-out and to accommodate more outdoor dining options; libraries - rearranging shelving to accommodate social distancing; hotels in large cities - turning rooms into offices for those workers that can afford to rent workspace downtown and thereby have private, safe space in which to work, make phone calls, create or conduct Zoom meetings.

I support this type of flexibility in spatial design; not just for specific needs of a pandemic but throughout our lives. There are times we need to open spaces to create more room for play; and times we need to contain activities, providing privacy and protection from the elements.

2020-21 has seen many creative examples of flexible design and re-purposed spaces, worthy of applause. Museums and art gallery have been used for distribution of the vaccine ‘jab’ in the UK. Luxury hotels are rented out by the day as workspace in New York and other major city centres. Railway coaches were transformed into care centres in India. These examples are extensions of a trend I have encountered when travelling in recent years.

In 2018, while travelling in Sicily, I stopped with my husband overnight in Bagheria, in a revamped railway station on the line to Palermo (Le Stanze del Capostazione); the reno featured spacious upstairs rooms with modern bathrooms and double glazed-windows, and a modern communal kitchen. The flexibility of design and Sicily’s regulations and grants allowed for an older building to be valued and restored for contemporary use and enjoyment, while maintaining its function as an operating railway station.