In early March, I was still commuting to the office of the A&D magazine where I was working. COVID-19 had only just been detected in New York City, and I continued to hew closely to the workday habitus, albeit with some slight behavioral tweaks. I watchfully avoided the inadvertent brush with other commuters on the train, but I had not thought to wear a face mask; I gave pedestrians a wide berth on sidewalks but not in coffee queues; I washed my hands (and wrists) as though I were scrubbing into surgery, even as I continued to shake those of the people I met for interviews.
Although skeptical of voluntarism as redress to social problems, I did not bristle at the public health recommendations seeking to mitigate transmission in shared spaces, nor did I flout them—at least intentionally. Perhaps I was simply not ready to give up the easy pleasures of city life, whether sitting alone and reading in a crowded park, or meeting with friends for beers after work, or pursuing any other banal activity that finds hackneyed resonance on the page or screen. These pleasures, doubtlessly worth protecting, are the right of all in name alone, a fact made obvious by the spread of COVID-19. Like pathogens, inequities are not singular events imposed or grafted onto urban landscapes, but rather reside and preponderate within the laws that structure them.
For the critic and architect Michael Sorkin, cities were incubators for politics—and not just any politics, but that breed that is forged through collective struggle in space, spurred on by history. In the past year, Michael and I became close; I provided editorial assistance on a couple of book projects he and his publishing imprint, UR, had going, while he returned the (paid) favor with a spirited rap that belied his failing health. Huddled in his office, we talked in hour-and-a-half segments about book projects, his work, architecture, food, travel. I goaded him into reciting from memory my favorite of his turns of phrase, and he always complied.
Michael was also a good friend of the great Bill Menking, cofounder and editor in chief of The Architect’s Newspaper. When AN was looking for an executive editor, Michael referred me to Bill; not long after, I was summoned to the Lispenard Street loft for examination. At the time, in early February, Bill was still settling back into life in the loft after spending the preceding months in the hospital. His occasional wincing telegraphed the bodily pains he was nursing. Nevertheless, he was cogent and determined to resume his daily activities, chronicling a misjudged excursion to the corner post office that resulted in a tumble down the entrance steps.
The same day I started the job at AN, Michael died, owing to complications related to COVID-19. Two weeks later, in mid-April, Bill passed away after a protracted battle with cancer. Soliciting tributes from their friends and colleagues to publish on AN’s website, I found myself speaking to the same group of architects and academics back-to-back, some of us battling a feeling of numbness with welcome but uneasy stabs at humor.
We at AN are moving ahead, trying our best to keep apace with events in the world and the obstacles that come our way. Like everyone else, we can’t help but tail these selfsame events; for this reason, the contents of the May 2020 issue may already seem out-of-date, or perhaps off-topic. The editorial preoccupation with Los Angeles, a thread that runs throughout the May issue, including our visit to Johnston Marklee’s Westwood studio and feature-length look at a 1.3-mile-long, open-air museum percolating in Hyde Park, was meant to coincide with the since-canceled AIA Conference on Architecture 2020. Which is not to suggest that these initiatives and projects don’t merit coverage on their own—only that our interest in them preceded the arrival of the present pandemic and economic crisis.
That explanation aside, we have attended to these realities in a few places in these pages, such as in our report on the efforts of individual architects to manufacture and supply personal protective equipment, or PPE, to medical staff in hospitals. I remain stubbornly attached to my skepticism of voluntarism—we should not have to rely on the improvisatory, if meaningful, action of individual actors to fill the gaps in our healthcare system—but the experience may bequeath to architectural practice new procedures of collaboration and better coordinate the aims of the designer and the desires of the user. If nothing else, these efforts attest to the willingness (not to say eagerness) of practitioners to break outside the confines of practice and engage with the world around them.
Last month, AN also launched Trading Notes, a weekly AIA-accredited conversation series that addresses the consequences the pandemic has had for the industry. So far, we have heard from architects, engineers, and construction managers about project slowdowns, the difficulty of conducting site inspections remotely, the comparatively painless move to remote working, the bunching up of material supply chains, and more.
At the time of closing the May 2020 issue, AN staff had just entered the seventh week of quarantine. The novelty has worn away, and we have settled into a pattern of work that could go on for much longer. (The current timeline for the easing of stay-at-home orders appears to be early June, but who knows?) I myself have yet to visit AN’s FiDi office and have built relationships with my colleagues entirely over video chat and other messaging applications. This is a different kind of “propinquity” than what Michael advocated for, and one that cannot ever serve as its replacement. It’s perhaps more akin to the sociability Bill so exemplified, but something still less, an all-too-literal face-to-face lacking the infectious charge of shared space. At the moment, we find ourselves caught up in a mix, but deprived of the chance to mix it up. Here’s hoping that we’ll be back to it soon.