Many years ago, our firm rented an office in a historic brick and timber frame building in downtown Winchester. In several locations there was historic graffiti, inked in cursive, inscribed on the wooden columns and beams. The most prominent piece of graffiti was one which said 1917 – Country is hell all over. All of us in the office thought that the inscription was referring to when the U.S. entered into World War I. Little did anyone know back then that, in the spring of 1918, the ‘Spanish’ flu pandemic would soon come along, eventually killing roughly 675,000 people in the U.S. and a staggering 50 million worldwide. Now, a little over a century later, we are living through another frightening and vast, worldwide pandemic, with all of its social and economic repercussions.
Thinking back to that building and its graffiti, I remember that it was there that my co-workers and I would sometimes encourage each other to “be nicer than you really are!” When one of us would get irritated and annoyed with a client or a builder or an engineer or whomever, we’d say that catchphrase to one another, in order to prevent us from saying or emailing something curt or unkind, something not easily retracted.
During the current COVID-19 pandemic, there are signs everywhere about hand washing, masks, and social distancing. I would like to propose that we add another sign, one instructing people to be nicer than they really are. All of us are struggling these days, to different degrees. Job loss, social isolation, looming evictions, underlying health issues, uncertainty about the economy, racial injustice, political discord… really, it’s overwhelming. It’s no wonder that anxiety and depression are rising among Americans during the COVID-19 pandemic. Everyone is just trying to cope the best they know how.
We all recognize that architects can and should use their skills to make their communities better, by doing socially relevant work, creating architecture that inspires and uplifts, and volunteering their time and talents in a myriad of ways. In addition to their important, more long-term career citizen architect work, architects can, on a daily basis, use their design thinking to help solve big things but also small things. They can try to fix or avoid conflicts rather than always having to win an argument or a difference of opinion. Architects also need to be empathetic and kind, and give people the benefit of the doubt. We are leaders, and we should all ask how we can make things better– the projects we take, the ones we don’t, the design priorities within our work. Check in on your colleagues in the office and on young emerging professionals, who are facing a severely constricted job market. Find out if your clients or builders are stressed, and give them some help and encouragement. Instead of being nicer than you really are, try to be as kind and empathetic to people as you possibly can.
Now that we own our office building, it’s tempting to scribble some graffiti ourselves: 2020 – Country is hell all over. But then, on the other hand, maybe we should just inscribe the Elvis Costello line: 2020 – “What’s so funny ’bout peace, love, and understanding?”
With best regards,