Back 30, forward 30

I think back to 1990. What’s here in 2020 that might have been foretold back then? Office real estate was starting to crater. In 1992, Olympia & York went under and Canary Wharf went into receivership. The day before, I gave a talk at a forum in Tokyo, in the course of which I offhandedly said that this would happen. When it did, I was briefly an object of interest from others at the conference, but I’d been to Canary Wharf in 1991 and you could see it coming. My own career in architecture — I worked for SOM at the time, then moved to Gensler — saw episodic busts: the 1973 oil crisis, while I was in graduate school; the savings and loan crisis of the late 1980s; the commercial real estate crash of 1990 through 1993, the dotcom crash in 2000; and the near-death of finance in 2008. Now we have a pandemic, widespread and uneven in its impact and the timing and nature of the recovery. China is past it, it appears, and most everyone else is not.

In 1990, Japan was still on the radar screen and China was just opening up, undeveloped and hungry for outside investment. SOM San Francisco shifted in that direction. By 1995, it had a tiny office in Hong Kong and big projects in Beijing and Shanghai. But other markets were spottier — work in Manila, but less than before in Jakarta and Surabaya. China persisted.

In 1990, Hewlett-Packard was big in Silicon Valley, competing head-to-head with Dell in Austin. Apple was growing. Microsoft in Seattle was its rival. That rivalry continued, then Microsoft faltered. HP broke apart, but still competes with Dell for scraps. Email, run through dial-up modems, was coming into its own. I remember sending a proposal to Hong Kong as an attachment. It could take a hour because the connection often dropped, but it was worth it. Those proposals were tiny. No one was emailing drawings — the files were too big.

Somewhere along the way, privacy started dying out. In 2020, when mobile phones ensure that our movements can be tracked and our locations more or less established at any given moment, you may as well declare yourself openly, live transparently, but of course people developed new ways of hiding in plain sight, papering over their real views, states of marriage and employment, etc. Then Covid-19 put us indoors, except for the soon-sickened partygoers. At my age, solitude was more or less mandatory, but the exceptions were out and about, and plentiful.

Much has been written about how things will look when the pandemic lifts — what will come back. My guess is that the changes will be more apparent at a personal and organizational level, and less so as at an urban scale. Not that we won’t see new buildings and some evolution of the different places of human settlement, but their outward expression won’t be as radically different as the way people experience the everyday — how they navigate it, communicate with others, find companions and entertainment, etc. It’s likely to differ by cohort, with products finding mass appeal but how they’re used differentiating based on age and many other factors. If the particularization of mass society, its division into ever-smaller identities, continues, entertainment will constantly look for an audience and audiences may look for each other to enlarge themselves, monetize themselves, and have more impact.

In 1990, we were starting to emerge from the AIDS crisis. Across the next 30 years, we saw epidemics come and go on a regional basis, isolated and contained. Now they say that Covid-19 is a preview of what lies ahead. If that’s true, it will alter mass tourism and business travel. Countries that can afford to will put up barriers to entry. Treaties that allow freedom of regional movement may fall apart for health reasons. Behind this is a fear of climate-induced migration, of human movement at a scale that no region can resist. By 2050, we’ll either have something to show for our efforts to slow global warming or we won’t. If we don’t, we’ll have a 30-year-clearer view of “worse.”

Global warming, if it produces heat spikes and bitterly cold winters, will alter human settlement patterns accordingly. Worse weather will be another brake on travel and make it prohibitive to develop in a conventional manner in vulnerable places. Look for a revival of vernacular forms that dealt with these conditions. If it gets worse, you’ll see more of them.

In 30 years, it seems unlikely we’ll be at a point when worse turns into worst and people abandon land areas en masse because they’re untenable. But instances of worst are likely. Hopefully, they’ll spur action. But action on a concerted basis is unusual, as the response to Covid-19 demonstrates in spades.

Does this make China’s point that its centrality and authority is preferable to competing regimes? Yet there’s New Zealand as a counter-example, and evidence that countries led by women did better with the pandemic than those led by men. My guess is that China will prove to be one more instance of a power overreaching, like us and our “New World Order.”

Writer and editor, based in Berkeley, CA.

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