At home with RIBAJ – and Covid-19

Words:
Hugh Pearman

Even while we're in coronavirus lockdown, RIBA Journal is still on its way – from our houses to yours – looking at how practitioners, students and the furloughed are coping with this strange new world

May 2020 is the first issue of the RIBA Journal in its 127-year history to be written, edited, designed and proof-read entirely from our homes. You know why. Please make allowance for any glitches, and for delays outside our control. Downstream of us on the way to you are printers, distributors, and the Royal Mail. Plus of course many members are registered at their office rather than their home addresses and are, like us, now at home. 

So we have an alternative for you. As well as our usual frequently-updated service online at RIBAJ.com, which has all the material that appears in print plus much more, you’ll find full pdf versions of the print version of the magazine too. Just go to ribaj.com/thearchive and click on the relevant month. We’ll put the latest issue up as soon as we can. 

It is starting to feel almost normal to work this way, so long as the design work continues, and there’s the rub. Articles in the ‘Intelligence’ section this issue tackle the way practices and students are coping – again, find more both at RIBAJ.com and at the RIBA’s Covid-19 hub

Remember those old science fiction films where the crew on the spaceship, moonbase or wherever gather round a screen to talk to those back on earth? It’s like that except that in this world of virtual meetings there is no central hub. Moonbase talks to Marsbase talks to Starbase: in this scenario Earth has been temporarily abandoned. The dispersed institution, long mooted, becomes actuality. 

This makes sense up to a point: it is members, not the building, that make any member organisation. But it soon becomes clear why this is not the normal model, just as it isn’t for most practices. People need to meet. You need to discuss ideas and strategies. There are central facilities. Virtual design and planning sessions can take things only so far: designs can be approved, but eventually – assuming finance remains – comes the need to build. Contractors can’t work from home. 

War work is ‘a combination of Organisation and Improvisation.’ That is almost a description of our Nightingale emergency hospitals

This is very different from a war, with different responses required. Even so there are some parallels. During the Second World War architects again found themselves with very little work. All most of them could do, if they were not serving in the military, was to plan for the peace. War work, said RIBA honorary secretary Michael Waterhouse in the summer of 1943, was mostly not architecture. ‘I am tempted to define it as a combination of Organisation and Improvisation.’ That is almost a description of the birth of our Nightingale emergency hospitals during the present crisis. It’s architecture, Jim, but not as we know it. 

What will the equivalent of the peace be like, once the virus retreats and we can gather together again? I’ll make no predictions, but a restarted economy will still need to build: and building can help restart the economy. 

Meanwhile, architecture does not have to be built to exist, as our Eye Line drawing competition proves year after year. Whether you are a practitioner or a student, now is the time to enter. Go to ribaj.com/culture/enter-eye-line. Deadline Monday June 8. Let this year be the best yet for the art of the architectural image. Good luck, everyone.