Article published in 2020 under the title “Architecture Post-COVID : vers un retour aux sources du modernisme” in the book entitled “198 CONTRIBUTIONS POUR PENSER LA VILLE“, published by Editions Pavillon de l’Arsenal, Paris.
Shedding light on the intersection of modern architecture and the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, this article, authored by Pierre Châtel-Innocenti, architectural photographer, explores the historical links between architectural modernism and hygiene. By examining how modernism incorporated hygiene principles into architectural design, the article raises questions about their relevance in the era of the coronavirus. Considering concepts of spacing, natural light, and airflow, the article suggests that lessons from the past could contribute to creating healthier and more resilient urban environments in the face of pandemics.
By Pierre Châtel-Innocenti, Architectural Photographer, firstname.lastname@example.org
With confinement just completed in France, we are entering a new phase in the fight against COVID-19. The immediate responses will have to be replaced by a longer-term vision that provides longer lasting solutions to this health and social crisis. Indeed, how are we to avoid a resurgence of the epidemic – this famous second wave – or more generally, how to minimize the risk of a new viral pandemic of the same type appearing again?
Part of the solution could be found in the fields of architecture and urban planning. Indeed, it would not be the first time that these fields have found themselves in a situation of response to a health crisis. In fact, an ideal urban development should take into account problems linked to human flows and contacts: in fact, the confinement on an almost global scale of the population has even shown that the control of these flows is a key element in the fight against the spread of SARS-CoV-2.
Modularity and roof gardens, Habitat 67, Montreal, Moshe Safdie, 1967 – Photos © Pierre CHATEL-INNOCENTI
As an architectural photographer, I have a front-row seat for identifying the impact of past and present architectural trends in the urban landscape. From a strictly visual point of view, I am particularly sensitive to modern architecture: its clean lines, its simple volumes, its lack of ornamentation… this aesthetic has considerably influenced my minimalist approach to architectural photography. If, until now, I was mainly interested in the visual impact of this architectural style, the COVID-19 crisis makes me wonder – and I am not the only one  – on the relevance of the hygienic principles underlying modernism in the context of the fight against the spread of this virus.
Modernism and hygienism: historical perspectives
The 19th and 20th centuries were the scene of several deadly epidemics (cholera and tuberculosis epidemics in the 19th century, Spanish flu in the 20th century – which caused several million deaths throughout the world). These epidemics, taken in the context of the medical knowledge of the time, favored the emergence of political and social hygienist theories from the mid-nineteenth century: they consist in giving predominance to epidemiology and demography in the decision-making in architecture, urban planning and public health. It thus seemed logical at the time to create buildings that let in full natural light and outside air, to connect these buildings to the main sewer, to organize the collection of household waste, to organize hospitals in pavilions by pathology… All these innovations called into question the organization of cities and had a lasting impact on architecture.
Stilts and Brutalism, Maison du Brésil, Paris, le Corbusier and Lúcio Costa, 1957 – Photos © Pierre CHATEL-INNOCENTI
The discovery of the role played by micro-organisms in contagion by Louis Pasteur in 1865 further promoted the development of hygienic principles. Soon after, Koch’s discoveries on tuberculosis in 1882 initiated the construction of sanatoriums in North America and Europe, including the very famous Paimo Sanatorium in Finland by Alvar Aalto in 1929. These medical establishments, whose approach to treatment of epidemics is first of all environmental (anti-tuberculosis drugs having not yet been invented) and based on the isolation of patients, clearly inspired the modern movement: white and smooth surfaces, environments bathed in natural light, surrounded by nature providing healthy air.
At the same time, the architect Tony Garnier (1869-1948) presented in 1901 his industrial city project  which put forward modern materials with its use of iron, concrete and glass. Some of the key principles of his project also became an integral part of the modern movement: hygiene, free plan, separation of flows, garden cities.
In 1927, Le Corbusier defined his “5 points of modern architecture” and thus systematized some of the functionalist principles developed by the Chicago school. To which will be mingled in practice the hygienist principles from the teachings of the Bauhaus: use of pilings (making it possible to free up traffic on the ground floor, but also to separate the soil and its pathogens), roof terrace and roof garden (which can be used as a solarium or for playing sports), free plan simplifying the interior space, banded windows and free facade.
Architectural modernism would finally come to the fore from the 1920s and would retain a prominent place in the public domain for 50 years.
The 5 points of modern architecture in practice, Villa Savoye, Poissy, Le Corbusier, 1928-1931 – Photos © Pierre CHATEL-INNOCENTI
Inside the home, the international style in furniture and design advocated a certain form of order and de-clutter: new light and washable materials, clean and minimalist shapes. This trend coincided with hygienic principles by allowing air and light to circulate as freely as possible, it also prevented dust (and tuberculosis bacilli) from stagnating and lodging in it. Light was also playing the role of a powerful natural disinfectant and stale indoor air could be renewed by healthy outdoor air through many windows and openings.
COVID-19 pandemic and the relevance of hygienism today
While medical science can do a lot, it often acts in reaction to existing problems, and there are inevitable long periods of time dedicated to research, scientific studies, the creation of new drugs and vaccines, and finally their production.
In this context, the environmental approaches formerly promoted by hygienism – and actually carried out through certain principles of modern architecture and urban planning – could prove to be very useful palliatives capable of acting in a preventive, prophylactic manner. In the absence of any vaccine available immediately, let us ensure that the building is well ventilated, sunny and disinfected, that nature and open spaces have a more important place, that population flows are better organized to minimize the spread of pathogens …
The hypothesis would then be that by configuring city and places of life in a certain way, and by avoiding too high a population density, we could certainly limit the risk of an epidemic.
Modernist interior, Villa e1027, Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, Eileen Gray, 1926-1929 – Photos © Pierre CHATEL-INNOCENTI
The well-known disinfectant power of natural light, brought so effectively into the home by modern architecture, could be a (free) weapon of choice in the fight against certain pathogens. Several research initiatives [3, 4] currently focus on the effects of UV-C type ultraviolet rays on SARS-CoV-2.
Concerning the aeraulic properties of contemporary constructions, voices are now being heard  denouncing the current trend to use so-called “renewal” mechanical systems recycling confined air in new buildings, in fact creating airtight structures that do not “breathe” anymore and where pathogens may be proliferating. This trend is against the modernist approach favoring air and people exchanges with the outside through spatial configuration of buildings.
Despite their apparent relevance, the fact remains that some of these hygienic notions must be reassessed in light of contemporary scientific knowledge: our understanding of infectious diseases and their transmission mechanisms have evolved considerably over the last century.
Another element to take into account is that COVID-19 is a viral infectious disease caused by the SARS-CoV-2 strain, while 19th and 20th centuries epidemics of tuberculosis and Spanish flu were respectively caused by a bacteria and an H1N1 virus. There is also the question of how to assess the effectiveness of these principles inherited from modernism in the case of SARS-CoV-2.
What alternatives to population dispersal?
If “social distancing” via confinement of individuals has proved to be decisive in combating the spread of SARS-CoV-2, the city as we know today presents a major challenge to social distancing outside of the habitat. Indeed, the high density of population in major cities is an obstacle to its implementation during commuting, at work and in everyday activities.
Does this risk then necessarily sign the end of “mega-cities” and the amplification of an already existing form of urban sprawl , in particular in Western countries where population growth now mainly takes place outside of big cities [7, 8]?
Current studies tend to show that, in a world of interdependent systems and permanent population movements, dispersion and spacing in suburbs and peri-urban areas do not necessarily prevent the onset and spread of COVID-19 cases [9, 10]. The current health crisis therefore seems more like an opportunity to rethink the city and the urban environment in order – perhaps – to successfully reconcile the limitation of the spread of the virus and population density.
Modernism combines architectural and urban planning considerations and embraces urban density by creating arrangements within open spaces that are effectively linked to each other. This vision of the city remained mostly on paper though, but the post-war reconstruction effort did offer a few opportunities to put it into practice.
The garden cities principle of Ebenezer Howard was partially implemented in Lyon, France by Tony Garnier between 1901 and 1917. The habitat there consists of small villas and buildings with flat roofs along tree-lined streets, thus creating more open and less dense spaces where air can circulate freely.
A new place for nature in the city? The Clichy-Batignolles eco-district in Paris, France. Building in photo 2 : Atelier Philéas. Building in photo 3 : Gausa + Raveau. Photos © Pierre CHATEL-INNOCENTI
Le Corbusier also obviously looked at the modern city layout and its means of circulation: his “Plan Voisin” of 1925 – which laid out the entire right bank of Paris – dealt with high density population in Paris as a central consideration and followed his previous 1922 plan for the “Three million inhabitants Contemporary City ”. Formal geometry and high density are the key words of this work which relies on numerous spatial openings, pilings and then-modern technology to bring clean air to everyone.
Twenty years later, Auguste Perret used reinforced concrete and prefabricated structures according to modernist principles to completely redevelop the center of Le Havre, France, that had been destroyed by bombardments in 1944. This achievement has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2006.
A product of its time, this modernist urban planning has often focused on the car as the preferred mode for connecting developments deployed over large areas. It thus gave birth to the slab concept, allowing vertical separation between cars and pedestrians traffic flows. This car focus is hardly compatible with contemporary ecological objectives, but that does not prevent us from drawing inspiration from previously successful functionalist and rationalist principles to reorganize the urban space on the basis of hygienist considerations.
In the current epidemic context, medical science cannot do everything. A holistic approach invites us to also consider environmental and prophylactic solutions. Especially since the WHO believes that SARS-CoV-2 could “become an endemic virus in our societies and therefore never disappear” .
In this context, spatial interventions specific to architecture and urban planning could not only bring elements to improve the quality of life of each of us, but also provide pragmatic solutions to contain this epidemic… and perhaps prevent the next one. This was the hope of hygienists and modernists of the past century and their ambitions certainly deserve to be reassessed today.
If today many architects still refer to Le Corbusier principles and Bauhaus teaching, architects of the modern international movement of the past went very quickly beyond purely hygienist and functionalist considerations to fully appropriate this new style, strongly imbued with minimalism.
In urban planning, moderns are today criticized for having favored the car too much, and the international style for having ignored local and regional cultures. However, nothing prevents us today from revisiting the most useful concepts inherited from modernism, in order to transpose them to current issues, especially epidemiological ones.
Finally, the coronavirus epidemic turned out to be also indicative of social inequalities: age, health, but also income level are acting as strong discriminators. As shown by the “exceptional excess mortality in Seine-Saint-Denis, the poorest department in France” . In this context, the utopian (and rarely implemented yet) community vision of improving the quality of life for everyone in “ideal cities” , as carried by supporters of the modern movement, remains more than ever relevant.
 The Post-Pandemic style, Vanessa Chang for Slate – https://slate.com/business/2020/04/coronavirus-architecture-1918-flu-cholera-modernism.html
 Henri Poupée, Tony Garnier : Cité industrielle, Philippe Sers, Paris, 1989
 Gravemann, Ute, et al. “SARS Coronavirus Is Efficiently Inactivated in Platelet Concentrates by UVC Light Using the Theraflex UV Platelets Technology.” 2018 Annual Meeting. AABB, 2018.
 Bedell, Kurt, Adam H. Buchaklian, and Stanley Perlman. “Efficacy of an Automated Multiple Emitter Whole-Room Ultraviolet-C Disinfection System Against Coronaviruses MHV and MERS-CoV.” infection control & hospital epidemiology 37.5 (2016): 598-599.
 Rémy Butler, tribune. Le Monde, May 22, 2020. https://www.lemonde.fr/idees/article/2020/05/22/remy-butler-il-faut-penser-un-deconfinement-architectural-afin-que-les-batiments-respirent_6040395_3232.html
The Coming Age of Dispersion, Joel Kotkin for Quillette – https://quillette.com/2020/03/25/the-coming-age-of-dispersion/
 Population growth concentrated in auto oriented suburbs and metropolitan areas, Wendell Cox for newgeography – https://www.newgeography.com/content/006527-population-growth-concentrated-auto-oriented-suburbs-and-metropolitan-areas
 Dispersion in Europe’s cities, Wendell Cox for newgeography – http://www.newgeography.com/content/004901-dispersion-europes-cities
 Are Suburbs Safer From Coronavirus? Probably Not, Laura Bliss, Kriston Capps for Citylab –
 Outbreaks like coronavirus start in and spread from the edges of cities, Roger Keil, Creighton Connolly, S. Harris Ali – https://theconversation.com/outbreaks-like-coronavirus-start-in-and-spread-from-the-edges-of-cities-130666
Coronavirus may never go away, World Health Organization warns, BBC – https://www.bbc.com/news/world-52643682
 Statement by the Health General Director of France, Jérôme Salomon, of Thursday, April 2, 2020
 L’architecture moderne depuis 1900 : La communauté idéale : les alternatives à la cité industrielle, William j. r. Curtis, Phaidon, 1995, 736 p. (ISBN 978-0-7148-9491-1), p. 241-255