“If history has lessons to impart, they are to be found by excellence in [such] recurring patterns.”
– G.W Trompf, The idea of historic recurrences in western thoughts –
Since the COVID-19 outbreak in December 2019, architects and designers are anticipating possible changes in the design industry. However, one must not speculate much, as it is not the first time a pandemic puts architecture into question. Humanity has long fought the invisible enemy, one of its deadliest battles being the bubonic plague.
Also known as the Black Death, the bubonic plague is considered to this day Europe’s most daunting tragedies. Sweeping one-third of the continent’s population, the plague killed more than 20 million people.
Originated from the east, the pandemic reached Medieval Europe via the Silk Road in October 1347. Its first encounters were the people of Caffa, the merchant port city, and modern-day Feodosia, from which the pandemic widely spread inland, soon covering the whole continent.
With the death toll rising rapidly and fear taking over the population, Europe’s medieval life would soon be altered for good.
So how did 14th-century architecture adapt to the plague? And what were the changes incorporated in response to the pandemic?
When doctors and physicians of 14th century Europe were incapable of defining the origins of the plague, divine punishment became the only explanation of medieval people; God’s retribution for humanity’s sins. This explanation, undoubtedly accepted by the population, proves how vulnerable the people were facing the deadly disease.
In fact, it would have been impossible to convince a medieval person that an invisible bacillus travels through fleas on rats to infect humans. Hence, sanitary standards were not much changing during the pandemic as the real reason behind the plague was utterly ignored.
However, as fields become strewn with cadavers and cities swept of existence, architecture portrayed the tormented psyche of the people left in total solitude. Historians argue that post-plague art became a prevalent obsession with death and sin—a dark and pessimist approach to design.
Even though people were not knowledgeable of the plague’s nature back then, they still managed to depict its contagious behavior. The new concept of quarantine became therefore the only proven way of escaping the plague. Isolation and human distancing radically changed the urban approach of14th-century Renaissance. European cities were highly crowded during the time and architects soon realized that to survive, city densification must be resolved. Hence, medieval cities expanded their borders to create less cluttered spaces for their population.
The most favorable environments for the prosperity of the disease, such as slums and highly crowded quarters, were therefore cleared out of cities. As natural ventilation became of paramount significance, streets and buildings are designed to be less crowded and more open to public green spaces.
In addition to that, a new function would be introduced to the urban fabric: the quarantine facility. An early form of modern-day hospitals, these buildings challenged the prevalent architectural practices of the era in matters of scale and time of construction.
But the most noticeable trend that appeared in post-plague architecture was the shift towards the ’perpendicular’ style. The French Gothic with its decorative sculptures and elaborated glass were no longer relevant after the Black Death. Austerity was the main attribute of the new perpendicular movement. Buildings turned sharper and less effete as architects gave up on the decorative features and opulent appearances of buildings.
Scholars argue that there are different reasons why this style was attributed to the architecture of the Black Death. First of which, being the loss of a great number of masons and experts of the era. With the great demographic change, the population lost the knowledge and skills employed before the plague. The number of surviving artisans and masons was so little; historians argue that this might have caused a drop in the standard and decorative tendencies. While others argue that this style was growing before the plague, it is almost certain that the economic recession caused by the Black Death and the financial limitations that followed only accelerated the propagation of this trend.
Finally, the Black Death’s greatest damage was the tremendous loss of the population, of which Europe kept suffering until the 16th century. Even though waves of the plague kept resurfacing every few years, historians note that mortality rates diminished with each wave as the population adapted and pre-empt the disaster.
In the end, with all the tragic damages it caused, the refining nature of pandemics has helped humanity in tackling the most urgent problems of our built environments, stripping us of our comfort zones towards sheer advancement.