Digital architectural “collaboration” in times of COVID-19

The past year has required far-reaching changes in terms of how we work within the architecture, engineering and construction industry, including within professional practice and education. Public health interventions required to help limit the spread of COVID-19 meant that many behaviours and normal work became impossible. Perhaps foremost among these were the need to socially distance meaning that design teams had to work at a physical distance, and that the education of architects and architectural technologists – traditionally undertaken in collaborative studio environments – had to shift online. Many software providers (such as Unity with the quite brilliant Unity Reflect) have managed to develop software which allows some degree of more informal discussion, and where users of the software are not required to really have any knowledge of coding. In this way, the digital platform, software and hardware can become a seamless part of the communication process, rather than a technically demanding task in itself.

One experience for many during the pandemic has been that some aspects of our work can be undertaken quite effectively using online tools and software. Indeed, through the period since March 2020 I have personally been able to continue working on numerous Europe-wide research projects, and to engage in quite positive and creative discussions with colleagues. The physical location of my peers quickly became almost irrelevant, in that it mattered not if they were in the next building, or another country – we could only meet online in any case. With one research collaborator, they even moved from one end of the UK (15 minutes walk from my home) to the other (SE England) without an obvious impact on our (by then) normal mode of working.

Researchers from Interreg PAV, on a bus in Almere, without social distancing, sharing ideas. Collaboration.

Our students have been quite amazing in their willingness and ability to work online, and although some lectures have felt (to me, facing a wall of blanked cameras) like I am broadcasting a radio show where people rarely call in, interaction has been really good, and has to a great extent emulated that which would have happened in more normal times. Audience interaction has been difficult to replicate, but perhaps I need to simply remind myself that I am not a stand up comedian (this is maybe obvious already to people having to listen to me).

However, I have become aware of something lacking in all of this. That is, the accidental conversation. The unplanned discussion in the cafe. The chance meeting in a corridor or outside the library.

Organising to meet somebody on Teams/Zoom/Skype (choose your favourite) at a specific time, for a specified duration, with a ‘meeting title’ is not the same. So much of what we do in both practice and academia is driven by collaboration through informal discussion, and the ability for us to somehow replicate this online is still limited.

Cafes seem like a distant memory at the moment… (image from, creative commons)

If I think back over my research career, I can identify where many projects emerged from, and they were not formal meetings. For example:

Although we have certainly managed to keep projects moving during 2020, we now reach a point where there is a need to (re)engage with the users of research. To discuss the impact of research on people. To find ways to implement research methods such as group discussion, on site work, team collaboration, which we perhaps took for granted until the world changed.

So much of collaboration and participation within architecture relies on human communication and interaction, regardless of the media being used. We need to ensure that positive lessons and experiences from our response to this dreadful pandemic can be retained, but we also need to reflect on how we can best recover aspects of that collaboration which have been challenged or even lost.

Richard Laing

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