Perception of the Risks associated with demographics
The range of activities in the physical public space or more specifically public performing places varies from social gathering, live performances, and interaction with people in production, staff, and audiences. The number and age of the users, the type and intensity of the performance, the level of interaction between users, performers, the size of the audience, and the characteristics of the venue can vary widely. As the infection severity is correlated with the age, it is likely that older patrons, members consider themselves at risk on mass gatherings of live events and performances. Design needs to address these anticipated permanent changes to patrons’ demographics, with younger patrons less concerned with risk, and older patrons, (particularly seniors) remaining vigilant even after a relatively safe level of population immunity is acquired. Therefore, each of these variables needs to consider that might give rise to an increased risk of transmission through various pathways, close contact within the spatial settings where groups gather for activities and/or contact with surfaces.
Virtual Reality as Substitution ?
The pandemic has significantly altered the way we were communicating. We have seen the birth of another form of art in this pandemic, as arts are displaying, performing online, or streams of pre-recorded performance to connect audiences. It is expected that pandemic experience (associated with older patrons, and/or patrons with the vulnerable immune system), will permanently change how people experience public space and performing arts. Perhaps, a substantial part of the demand for live experiences of performing arts can be satisfied virtually. People can connect via digital gadgets like phones for subscriptions, tablets to watch and enjoy remotely. Therefore, the designers need to develop and enrich alternative ways to maintain the patrons/user group. Learning and communication-related help desk facilities need to be in specially for the older patrons who might find challenges to adapt to a more digitally focused system for ticket purchasing to have an entry to public space or facilities. Further, areas designated for virtual facilities need to incorporate the technological requirements of the colors, materials, finishes, and lightings to maximize the efficiency of the performance area.
Moving Performances to the Outdoor
Until patrons can safely attend performances in sufficient numbers to be financially sustainable, some patrons or groups may not return to indoor events. During the pandemic, we have seen innovations for outdoor events have been observed in many countries around the world. For instance, balconies became a connector, transforming semi-outdoor spaces into a performing place. The isolation restricted by this pandemic makes the semi-private space ironically a performance space. Another part of theater practice of the clapping and banging of pots, singing for the health care workers – that we saw in different neighbourhoods were also as spontaneous activities that unfold in live theaters. These Juliet balconies or performances were spontaneous theater kind that shows human desire to be socialized, and being connected to express, recreate through performance.
We also have seen, outdoor venues, as ‘drive-in concerts’ in Germany and the use of hundreds of socially distanced pods that kept small groups at a COVID safe distance. The UK recently held an outdoor ‘socially distanced’ concert, where approximately 2500 fans gathered at Virgin Money Unity Arena in Gosforth Park, Newcastle, with a show by English singer-songwriter Sam Fender. In Canada, different neighbourhoods come together, where concert series took place on porches or front yard and the series of smaller performances audiences were located at the sidewalks, streets with 2 metres apart.
We could take these ideas further, and design the outdoor space to address the significance of the performance and audience connection that we have seen in live performances. The design needs to include more outdoor formal or informal theater space to create an inclusive, engaging experience. The balcony as a performance stage and connection with the audience through this stage need to strengthen in design to bring this architectural element back to the foreground as we lived in this space and experience these performances.
An exterior space can be converted to a make-shift amphitheater kind of space to broadcast the shows on LED screens or to facilitate live performances of local artists. It can be combined with interesting landscape space and grounds for holding small fair-festivals, markets. ‘Mi Casa, your Casa’ kind of spaces can hold multiple activities and can establish new relations between the performing art facilities and the neighbourhood, not only by transforming the public space but also building a bond between the community around. Under the condition of Covid 19, the installation can function as an urban installation for social distancing.
The desire to connect with the people and surroundings, which starts with the spontaneous heartfelt Italian Juliet Balcony- is an inspiration to the post-pandemic art facilities design and bring a strong relationship between landscape and the built form. The outdoor steps need to be visually connected with the balcony, digital screen surfaces where the live performance or the live recording can happen and/or be displayed and the audience can take steps outdoor on the unforeseen circumstances.
The Idea of Social Distancing and Double Bubbles
As large gathering spaces create more challenges to raise the risk of infection spread, the idea of double bubbling is basically to ease on social distancing measures to ensure patrons maintain physical distancing at the live performances. By using time and space sampling the performance theater needs to design to maintain audience numbers and social distances. When seating arrangement is provided, it needs to follow the double bubbles based on the nature of the performances and the number of the patrons/ audiences. The circulation aisles will follow a 2 m wide social distancing rule. Further, the distance between the audience and the artist that performs will increase to double of 2m to provide a safe distance when it is possible.
Recent live concerts in Cologne Germany have proceeded with a reduced capacity of the audience from 2400 to 1000 by implementing double bubbles rule of social distancing and health measures and by using plexiglass cubes to separate the audiences into small groups of up to eight people. Further, with the social distancing rule within the theater settings, each group also needs to have their own designated time of arrival and departure to enjoy the public event. The event was successful with the health measures and arrangements.
Ventilation and floor marks in Crowded Places
Several factors like crowded space, poor ventilation and close contact activities may have contributed to the outbreaks in public spaces. To make the space suitable for reducing transmission of air-bone infections, a well-planned natural ventilation is effective. By maximizing natural ventilation, and by limiting the maximum occupancy through safe distance floor markers can reduce the probability of transmission.
Other Design Considerations
Public space facilities need to reduce touchpoints and reduce the surfaces that are hard to clean.
Control measures need to be taken by installing touchless washing and /or sanitizing stations in well visible public locations (entrance -exit points, ticket kiosks, bathroom, or any high traffic areas). Additional space i.e. isolation rooms, health monitoring and check-in spaces, and storages room for supplies (hand sanitizers, gloves) need to be in the design considerations.
With the transition to more remote and virtual learning, it is important that the public spaces are resilient to accept new health and well-being concerns, access and movement, and new functional programs and possibilities. At a precinct level, the designs need to address surrounding context and interfaces, edges and uses of the space and at a site-specific level, the design needs to tackle the user’s rhythms, diversity, and experience. The lesson learned here is based on the current evidence as discussed above:
A Return to (new) Normal
Watching online, people are miss out on aspects of live performance/experience that make public space special, and the shared social experience of live performance cannot feel online. In a recent online survey findings by the author shows that 76 percent public space users would still look for a place to feel safe at live performances when the government lifts restrictions to movement and access. The designed space needs to have a mix of design strategies to restore public confidence. Because of the pandemic uncertainly, performing spaces need their design strategies to build within several scenarios to accommodate the design needs in shorter timeframes. The designed space need to achieve users confidence on safety, by addressing new interaction and by providing a platform for the activities for the new need. As vaccines are coming, we are expecting a gradual opening to a (new) normal by taking the lesson from the pandemic and going towards the new considerations and changes in spatial settings in performing public spaces.
About the Author:
Dr. Kishwar Habib is a Mitacs Elevate Post Doctoral Fellow, The University of Alberta, AAA Intern Architect, Manasc Isaac Canada
Illustration by: Pronay Saha
Manual of Physical Distancing: Space, Time and Cities in the Era of Covid 19
COVID-19 Risks and precautions for the performing arts
Firle C, Jabusch H-C, Grell A, Fernholz I, Schmidt A, Steinmetz A. Make music during the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. Recommendations of the German Society for Music Physiology and Musicians Medicine (DGfMM) to protect against infection when playing music. Berlin, Germany: German Society for Music Physiology and Musicians’ Association