The Role of Architecture During Tough Times

Jay Rhinehart

This is my first blog post ever. I’ve had scattered thoughts of a similar post forming in my head since October 2018, but recent events have brought those thoughts and feelings to the forefront more than ever before. If you are reading this at the time of the posting, chances are you’re stuck at home because of social distancing efforts due to COVID-19. In my lifetime I have rarely experienced anything so life altering than the current pandemic we are all facing throughout the world. Allow me to explain one of those experiences which affected me in a way that I knew I could never really process until I wrote about it.


I was born in Panama City, a small town in the Florida panhandle that many people may not know about if not for its beaches. I grew up in Lynn Haven, an even smaller town right next door. My parents still live there today. I remember sitting at my desk at my then-job (an architecture firm in Atlanta) on October 10th 2018 trying my best to concentrate on the project I was working on. My mind, however, was with my parents and brother’s family as they huddled together as Category 5 Hurricane Michael was barreling down outside. After the storm passed, I had been warned of the devastation to my hometown before I was able to get past National Guard barricades and see for myself, but nothing could have prepared me for what I saw when I finally arrived.


Many Churches Were Destroyed by Hurricane Michael, Affecting People Socially and Spiritually


I got lost on the way to my house because all of the usual landmarks were either gone or looked entirely different. Street signs were hard to come by. Huge pine trees snapped in half like toothpicks. Building after building without roofs, walls, or windows. Some buildings missing entirely with only foundations left standing. Metal studs and signs strewn about like spaghetti noodles. Many were left homeless. I saw countless blank stares on people looking for a place to go, the kind you only see on the face of someone who has just been through something unimaginable. I remember taking a break from tearing out wet drywall in my parents’ house to stand in line with my brother for a dinner from a Red Cross van. As I stood there, I noticed something that struck me so profoundly that the image is still ingrained in my mind. There was a group of people sitting on the curb of an out-of-service Burger King- just sitting, looking lost, with nothing to do and nowhere to go. I remember thinking then, how fascinating it was that when there was nowhere else to go, that group’s natural inclination was to congregate at a Burger King even though it was closed, simply because it was still standing and it was a normal place to be; a tiny oasis of human normalcy in the middle of a desert. Even today, eighteen months later, it is not uncommon to see dilapidated houses, abandoned businesses that look the same as the day the hurricane hit, and people living in tents and RVs. It will take years still to return to “normal” there, but the locals are finding a way to carry on and make due with what they have.


People Yearn For Places to Congregate As Basic Human Tendencies


The aftermath of Hurricane Michael in the Florida Panhandle, while devastating to that community, is only one example at a micro level. A look at the almost dystopian society we live in at the moment reveals a whole different set of challenges at a macro level that the entire world is experiencing at the same time.


Due to COVID-19, most of the entire human population is affected socially. Some people are lucky and are able to work from home. Others are not so lucky and have suffered economic hardships, let alone physical hardships. Almost everyone has suffered emotionally to a degree. For those who are working their normal jobs, chances are working conditions are nowhere near “normal”. What used to be common daily practices are now questioned as to whether they are essential or not. Have you been to a grocery store lately? If so, you know that nothing is even close to “normal” right now. Recently I wondered out loud whether or not I had been anywhere other than the house in the last several days. After I considered this a moment, I laughed to myself about how bizarre of a thought it was.


Is This Our New Normal?
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I’ve made two observations about our “new normal”, of which I’m curious if we will take any lessons learned and apply them to our lives after the pandemic is over.


First, how many of us are currently craving going somewhere, anywhere? Have you seen the meme of the man sitting in the window with his dog commiserating about how excited the dog must feel whenever he sees something new outside or when he gets to go for a walk? Yeah, that’s all of us now. I’d love to be able to go to a movie, take my son to the zoo or the aquarium, go to a football game, go to a museum, or even do something as simple as run an errand. Will any of that ever be the same again? Instead we are stuck in our homes. My family has learned to appreciate the nice days outside where we can go for a walk in the neighborhood and get fresh air and in essence reset ourselves physically and mentally. Which brings me to my next observation.


While we miss being able to go places, at least for me and my family, we have learned how to truly appreciate the simple things in life. While we have been stuck at home, I have learned to look at “home” as more than a house. I’m grateful for my house for providing shelter for my family, but it also allows us to make a home where memories are being made and will be cherished. People all over the world are rediscovering the beauty in nature. While it is an awkward sight to see people enjoying the outdoors sometimes wearing masks and at least six feet apart from each other, it is a beautiful thing to see people creating places-to-be in a new way. In navigating this “brave new world,” I’ve learned so much about how to do more with less.


Being Able to Rediscover Nature Has Been a Blessing in Disguise


Being in the architecture profession, naturally I’ve wondered about how and if architecture has played a role in all of this. I’ve realized that maybe there is a deeper meaning to architecture than what most people think about on the surface. I’ve learned that architecture isn’t just about buildings. It is what we make it, and we will make it with whatever we have available. It is vital. It is more than shapes and forms and colors. It is more than concrete, steel, wood, and glass. It gives us purpose. It fulfills basic human needs. It evokes emotions. It helps us connect socially. It provides a place where life begins, a place where it ends, and helps us form all the little memories in between. It is human. Perhaps I could have spared you my own thoughts and simply posted something that Japanese architect Yoshio Taniguchi said: “Architecture is basically a container of something. I hope they will enjoy not so much the teacup, but the tea.”.