But the Aaltos’ choices of material and design weren’t just aesthetically fashionable. “The main purpose of the building is to function as a medical instrument,” Hugo would later write. Tuberculosis was one of the early twentieth century’s most pressing health concerns; each element of the Paimio was conceived to promote recovery from the disease. “The room design is determined by the depleted strength of the patient, reclining in his bed,” Aalto explained. “The color of the ceiling is chosen for quietness, the light sources are outside of the patient’s field of vision, the heating is oriented toward the patient’s feet.” (The combination of cold feet and a feverish head was seen as a symptom of the disease.) Broad daylight from the windows as well as the terraces, where patients could sleep, was part of the treatment, as sun had been proved effective at killing tuberculosis bacteria. At the sanatorium, the architecture itself was part of the cure.
Much of modernist architecture can be understood as a consequence of the fear of disease, a desire to eradicate dark rooms and dusty corners where bacteria lurk. Le Corbusier lifted his houses off the humid ground to avoid contamination. Adolf Loos’s ultra-boxy Villa Müller in Prague, from 1930, included a separate space in which to quarantine sick children. Architects collaborated with progressive doctors to build other sanatoriums across Europe. “Tuberculosis helped make modern architecture modern,” the Princeton professor Beatriz Colomina writes in her revisionary history “X-Ray Architecture.” The industrialized austerity of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe or Marcel Breuer “is unambiguously that of the hospital,” the empty white walls, bare floors, and clean metal fixtures are all “surfaces that, as it were, demonstrate their cleanliness.”
As extreme as the aesthetic of modernist architecture seemed in the early twentieth century, people could at least be reassured that it was safe. A character in Thomas Mann’s novella “Tristan,” from 1903, described a “long, white, rectilinear” sanatorium for lung patients: “This brightness and hardness, this cold, austere simplicity and reserved strength . . . has upon me the ultimate effect of an inward purification and rebirth.” A tuberculosis vaccine began to be used on humans in 1921, but the association between modernism and good health stuck; the austere sanatoriums were marketed as palliatives for mental illnesses, too.
Quarantine makes all nonessential workers more intimately acquainted with the confines of their homes. We know everything about them, especially their flaws: the lack of daylight in one room, the dirty floor in another, the need for an extra bathroom. Space is all we have to think about. For architects, it’s a soul-searching exercise, especially if you happen to live in a home you outfitted for yourself.
The architect Koray Duman lives with his partner and their sixteen-month-old child in an apartment he designed, in the Lower East Side. Quarantine has led them to grow exhausted with the things they keep in the space, even though—with the exception of toddler accessories—they are relatively few. “You look at every detail of things. They limit you. If you have less you feel like you are more free, in a weird way,” Duman told me. Sustained scrutiny can breed discontent. Over the past two months, “interior designers got very busy,” he said. “People are, like, ‘I hate this space.’ ” Spending so long in one place might require an environment that can change more freely so that we don’t get bored. Usually a wall is static; “I don’t know that that’s necessary,” Duman said. “If it was on wheels, imagine how much fun you would have.”
Florian Idenburg and Jing Liu, a couple and the principals of the firm so-il—which has designed art museums, housing developments, and pop-up projects like the tent for the Frieze Art Fair—have been staying in their home, near the Brooklyn Navy Yard, with their two young daughters. It’s a bright white-walled duplex with open-plan common spaces. “Luckily, both our girls have their own rooms with thick doors,” Idenburg said. The arrangement comes in handy when the children have video-chat school sessions at the same time. Acoustic divisions have become more important while the family is crammed in together all day long, Idenburg noted. “The loft, the New York City typology, seems to be not the romantic thing at the moment. Everyone’s on Zoom calls.” A lack of privacy or the chance to move to a different room is harder to bear when bars, cafés, and stores can’t offer an escape.