In May, Andrew Barnes, AIA, co-founder of Agent Architecture in Dallas, spoke with his friend Chris Hardie, a principal and design director at the Shanghai office of Schmidt Hammer Lassen/Perkins and Will. The two architects discussed the relative responses to the coronavirus pandemic in Texas and China. What follows is a transcript of their conversation, edited for length and clarity.
Andrew Barnes: Would you describe your role in the office — and the office itself, in terms of size, physical environment, that sort of thing?
Chris Hardie: I’ve worked and lived in China for about 10 years. And before that, I was working in London for over 10 years. Around 2010, I founded the Shanghai office of Schmidt Hammer Lassen. We then grew that office to around 40 people. Then two years ago, we joined Perkins and Will. A year and a half ago, we brought the two offices together. So, we’re about 90 people. But, we essentially work as one team, one office with two brands on the door. My role is design director of the collective office. We have been back at the office since about February 24 or 25, I think it was.
CH: We really only suffered two weeks’ lockdown. Two weeks of that was in the Chinese New Year holiday, and two weeks after. So, it was a month in total, but half of it really was already a holiday. And I was actually in the UK for the two weeks of lockdown. When I flew back here, things were opening up again, so as far as I’m aware, I’m the only human being in the world that hasn’t suffered any form of lockdown. [laughs]
AB: That is wild. I don’t even know how many weeks it’s been, but since March 15, we’ve been holed up in our apartment … going a little crazy.
CH: [laughs] Yeah, I mean, it’s interesting for me too… We’re very aware of what’s going on in the U.S. We’re in touch with all of the offices there to some degree. It’s actually a really strange situation for us because the first two weeks we were back in the office, it was pretty grim. We were all in masks. We’re all getting our temperatures checked. We’re all in our office with the window open, so it’s freezing. We’re wearing our jackets. And everyone is a bit unsure and uneasy. I reached out to the other offices to see if they could send us a message of support that I could share with the staff. In sort of a crazy flip, four weeks later, in the Shanghai office, we were sending messages of support to all the other offices, as we went from being the only office in lockdown to being the only office not in lockdown. So, it’s been a really bizarre situation for us, but it’s kinda back to normal here, and I don’t see any reason why it won’t go back to normal everywhere else. I think that it will take a little bit longer.
AB: Yeah, it’s already taking longer over here. I think you guys are in the future as it pertains to COVID, and it’s interesting you’re saying it went completely back to normal. Are there any lingering effects that you see in the office environment because of it?
CH: Not really. Eventually, it goes back to normal. I think what we’re experiencing here is that there’s sort of two strands [of preventive measures]. One is the strand that the government does, and there’s this strand about how you deal with it as a business, or a designer, as an architect. And the thing we’re finding here is, you just can’t compare the first strand. There’s nothing really you can do about how your government deals with it. And to give some sort of comparison, Shanghai has a 25 million population. In Shanghai today, there’s like 20 cases. And if you put those numbers into perspective, we’re still wearing masks literally everywhere, and we still have our temperature taken and recorded as we enter our building.
AB: Right. Are you wearing masks in the office?
CH: Yep. As of Friday last week, the Shanghai government announced the reduction of the emergency level to its lowest level. Which meant that they were relaxing the wearing of masks, but you still have to wear them in public transport and public places, but generally, it’s easing. You know, it’s not easy to wear a mask, but you have to remember that, here, it’s very common. We’d wear it for pollution, unfortunately. So people don’t really mind it too much. But, what you see here is people are obviously starting to take them off, or they’re putting them under their chin, even in our office, because we have the confidence that no one has it. So, the other major issue here that won’t really happen in the West to the same degree, regardless of how much we want it to, is tracing. The way that they did it here was with mandatory tracing and voluntary tracing. So, with the mandatory tracing, they only allow people to move freely around the city and enter buildings, shopping malls, restaurants, office buildings, anything, if you have a green QR code. The green QR code is on your phone, and it’s through an application called WeChat, or one other application called Alipay, which we use to pay for things. So with pressing a button, the app can deduce if you’ve been to a hotspot or whether you’ve been in Shanghai for over 14 days. Because of the pings on your mobile phone, it can also track you and tell where you are. So it instantly gives you this code. So everyone has that, first and foremost, and everyone is wearing masks. Secondly, everyone has their temperature taken in the morning and recorded. If you go into our office now, it’s just a security guard standing there with a little table. He’s got a piece of paper with the names of everyone in the building. He has an infrared thing, and you just hold your wrist out and he beams it. Then you find your name, and he just writes it down. You can see everyone else’s. So, it’s a public confidence thing. You can see that it’s been done. If you put all those things together, when you’re in the office, social distancing doesn’t even matter in a way, right? We’re not kissing and hugging everyone, and we’re doing the elbow shakes because it’s sort of fun.
AB: It sounds like there’s a high level of confidence that all these other measures have basically taken care of the disease.
CH: We’re still talking about the second spike. There’s been a little spike in Seoul, Korea, and Hong Kong, and Wuhan. Everyone expects a second spike, but there is a general public confidence that tracing everything is confining it. The other example, voluntary tracing, is on the metro. So, the metro here is one of the biggest in the world. I think it has 13 or 14 million passengers a day, which is like three times the New York subway. And it’s fully operational. They have temperature checking as you enter through a thermal imaging camera like you would in an airport, so you don’t have to stop. On the train, each carriage has a QR code. You scan the QR code, and it opens an application. You just press “submit,” and it submits your name and your phone number, and it gives you a little number, and it says, “You’ve been on this train, on this carriage, at this time.” If anybody tests positive for COVID-19, they then say, “What information can you give me?” You can say: “Well, I registered on the train. Here’s that information.” And then they can trace and send a message to everyone else who has been on that carriage, on that train, at that time. So, that’s voluntary tracing, and then you go even lower tech, like not going out in the height of it or ordering food. When you took the bag from the delivery guy, the receipt would have another little tab with the names of the people that had prepared your food and that they had their temperature checked. And then, finally, there was one in some stores where I had to write down my name, the time, and my phone number. Very simple — not even technological — tracing. It’s a bit insane, and you can’t really replicate it in the West without major discussions of privacy.
AB: Well, yeah [laughs].
CH: I just think, it’s crazy, right? The Chinese here have one opinion, but us expats, we also agree with the whole privacy and tracing thing, but come on, ya know? We’re willing to give it up at this moment. Maybe, when this moment finishes, we’ll say, “Okay, okay, we shouldn’t have to do this,” but we can see the benefits of it now.
AB: That’s wild. And you see here in the U.S., people are protesting against the lockdown saying, “Open up now,” even though cases are increasing.
CH: The interesting thing that we saw is this change of perception between your personal situation and understanding the situation beyond yourself. And what I mean by that is, people say: “Well I’m fine, I’m healthy. I need to go back to work, so I’m gonna protest so I can go back to work.” And that, in many degrees, I totally understand. I don’t agree with it, but I understand. But, if you change that and start to understand how that’s affecting everyone around you — for example, if you take your mask off in a situation, we would say that’s really selfish. You actually see it in the West… Even doctors, they’re wearing a mask that has a valve on it, right? Here, that’s known as the selfish mask [laughs]. Because it’s protecting you, but it’s not protecting everyone around you, because it’s got a valve in it that’s letting all the moisture and air out, right? Where, here, it’s seen differently. It’s not about protecting yourself. It’s actually about protecting others from you. So, as a proactive perspective to our office, we said to our staff, “If one of us gets diagnosed as positive, firstly, we’ll probably have to shut our office.” That’s affecting the livelihoods of 90 of us. Not only that — we may be forced to shut all the businesses in our building. Which is 500 people. There’s this whole thing about trying to not necessarily think about yourself so much.
AB: Was it even a decision to shut your office down? Or was it just obvious that’s what you had to do for those extra two weeks?
CH: There was no choice. It was the government. And then they went through a process of reopening that had to be checked. The first places to open were offices. They had to visit every office, landlord, and everything, and have a meeting to confirm that the businesses can reopen as long as the following things were put into place: They needed to make sure they had someone at the door who was taking temperatures; they needed to make sure delivery guys and visitors were allowed into the building; they needed to make sure that the windows were open for ventilation. It’s now getting a bit hotter here, so we’re going to start turning our AC on pretty soon, but we can’t do it until next week because we have to wait for the government to check that we’ve gone through a process of getting them cleaned and disinfected. After all that, we get a sign off and we can do it.
So, it wasn’t a choice. What was a choice for us was how we went back. We phased it over four weeks. We went from 50 to 100 percent across three or four weeks. We also put in a few of our own additional things. We banned travel. International travel we couldn’t do anyway, but we banned domestic travel on a case by case basis of people needing to go to sites. What we didn’t want was someone traveling out, going to another city, catching it, and bringing it back to the office. So, our office became our own little country.
AB: Insane… I didn’t realize how different and extensive measures in China were compared to the U.S.
CH: Well, I mean, here, they definitely went through a process of slowly opening. One of the places I’ve frequently gone for lunch had a very big sign that said, “No mask, no entry.” And they took your temperature and would ask you to put your hands out, and they would spray your hands with hand sanitizer. Then you were free to go in, but they had a rule of one person per table. I think my biggest worry is stretching this whole thing out. Hopefully we catch this damn thing, lock it down, and get back to normal, but you end up stretching this out for like a year or two years, or whatever…
AB: Right, now that’s absolutely where I think we’re going. Our cases continue to increase, and I only see that continuing, if we continue to open things up and relax on restrictions. What else do I not know that you know being in the COVID future?
CH: Well, at Perkins and Will, a lot of offices reached out to us to say, “What did you do?” Well, they made this really great roadmap to open again, which is available on the first page of the Perkins and Will website, and it’s really geared toward the West. It’s talking about how to deal with social distancing in the office and procedures in the office, how to have confidence with people coming back. And there’s a lot of those things that came from us, with the exception of the social distancing element. So, I recommend looking at that document.
AB: We’ve been seeing a bunch of articles in architectural and design publications about how COVID is going to permanently change the workplace. What is your opinion on those?
CH: Again, I think it’s down to the mindset of what you can and can’t do. There is discussion about socially distancing by physically putting a barrier between you and another person with a screen, for example, that we’re seeing in stores in the UK. And, sometimes, I just look at them and go, “What a waste of plastic.” Just wear a mask, you know? It doesn’t have to be a surgical mask, it could be any kind of mask. I think after COVID, hospitals are now going to have an infectious diseases clinic that has really stringent regulations to separate ventilation systems. I think there’s going to be an element of that, but I really don’t see how it’s going to change the nature of how we work as human beings. We like to connect. I’d much rather be having this conversation over a beer in a bar in Deep Ellum with you. As nice as this Zoom call is, you get a stronger connection in person, right? So, my prediction is that most things will go back to normal, but there may be some minor changes. There might be some changes for good, if you see what Milan is doing. Italy is taking advantage of the shutdown by doing things like taking a three-lane street and turning it into a one lane street with massive cycling, and starting to implement more sustainable ways of moving and traveling around.
AB: I’ve enjoyed seeing that side product of what is going on, and it’s starting to make its way into the U.S., in Seattle and New York. Dallas is starting to have the conversation about closing streets for cars because the park system here is overloaded.
CH: Exactly the same thing happened here. They introduced a grouping system. So, you just go onto an app, and you say, “I want to go to the park between noon and one.” And they go, “Oh, that’s too busy.” And you go, “Oh, okay, I’ll go at one to two.” And you get a QR code, and at the park gates you just show your QR code. Also: the museum experience. I went to one of the museums on the West Bund, down by the river here, and it was a great experience because I felt like I almost had the museum to myself, because they had to keep it 30 percent occupancy. I picked a slot, so I didn’t have any queues to get in. I just went straight in and showed my QR code, and boom, I was in.
AB: And was that government-mandated too, or is each different place managing their own booking system?
CH: That’s government-mandated as well. Basically, every single building that a person goes into, other than your house, went through these procedures and said, “You can open, but you have to do this.” For example, my son’s school is open, but only for older children. We’ll get an email from the school saying, “Okay, we’ve gone through Phase One,” which was a group of people from the education bureau checking sanitation, air conditioning, etc. And then you go through a second phase, and then you get a green light that says, “Alright, you can open with these restrictions.”
AB: How is the government able to all of a sudden manage all of these new requirements and regulations for all aspects of society? How is the government able to do that so quickly?
CH: Well, once when the WHO came to Wuhan to inspect, they cited a situation where they were introduced to this guy who was teaching them how to put on PPEs, and the person from the WHO said: “Is this your job? What do you normally do?” And the guy said: “No, no. I’m normally a security guard at the gate, but because we’re not allowing anyone in, I’ve been retrained to doing this.” In this situation, many were given an important role as guardians. When I first came back, it was really quite scary: I went for a walk, and there was an old woman walking up our lane as part of a neighborhood watch. And she’s holding a loudspeaker shouting some sort of message in Chinese. My Chinese is not that great, surprisingly, but I sent it to a friend, and it was just a message saying: “Be safe. Wear your mask. If you have a temperature, stay indoors.” But it came across as really sort of intense. But in many ways, it was just what was happening in the West. Now I’m not saying people are going around the streets with loudspeakers, but people are coming together.
AB: It’s interesting, because over here, sometimes I feel like the government is in way over their heads, whether it’s state or national, but I’ve actually been pretty impressed and pleased with the local government’s response.
CH: It’s similar here in that a lot of people think it’s a central government thing, but in many ways, it’s cities and districts that have been acting on their own.
In the beginning, a couple of weeks in Wuhan, there was this really alarming spike. It just went through the roof. Everyone freaked out, and they demoted the mayor of Wuhan because he was seen as not doing a great job. Then they took the mayor of Shanghai, who’s been seen to have done a great job, and put him in place in Wuhan. There was a bit of control there — it would be like taking Cuomo from New York and throwing him into California. So, each place is doing its own thing, and each district, even in cities, are doing their own things. I think, in Beijing, just last week, there was a district that closed down again. I think you could go there, but you couldn’t enter any buildings without having quarantined for 14 days. They reintroduced that again. So yes, there are similarities, but of course, vast differences.