Throughout June, Surface teamed with the Stuart Weitzman School of Design at the University of Pennsylvania to craft a digital summer program for students to participate in during quarantine. Spearheaded by Winka Dubbeldam, Miller Professor and chair of the Department of Architecture, students were invited to respond to a brief to design a mobile medical testing unit for COVID-19. The competition was supplemented by an online lecture series featuring leading designers, architects, and doctors on the front lines of the pandemic.
At the end of the month, a jury of distinguished architects, educators, graphic, and industrial designers assembled to select the winners. Collectively, the student submissions are a showcase of the next generation of creative thinking and ingenuity, from a playground-themed concept and one inspired by a cumulus cloud to a design that resembles origami. Below, we reveal the top submissions.
Flipit, 1st Place
Team: Hanqing Yao
Concept: Two factors played a central role in Yao’s winning submission: versatility (what else can the testing unit be?), and the mental and physical comfort of testers and doctors. The testing units adopt the playful forms of childlike playhouses whose functionality changes as they are flipped into different positions, from a walk-in testing unit to a drive-through testing unit to a children’s playhouse that serves as a post-pandemic reuse solution. “The vivid and playful color and shape bring a relaxing atmosphere to relieve the tension and embarrassment people tend to hold when they are going to get tested,” she says. “I tried to create a more enjoyable and safer space for testers who are going through a serious medical process, and the doctors dedicating so much to the control of the disease.”
Favorite Speaker: Yao was taken by Michael Rock’s lecture about the social imaginary and how it forms our vulnerable reality. “It is very inspiring to know that even a trivial innovation or adjustment can start an evolution in the world. By knowing this, we are trying, though seemingly in very small steps, to make things better,” she says.
Summer School lessons: Like most of the students, the dual events of the coronavirus pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests had a major influence on Yao during the competition. “The past few months have reinforced my belief that as designers, we should always use all our skills to make a better place for a healthy and equitable society. We should consider every decision we make as an active move—in both the short term and long term—towards a society with important values like health, equity, and happiness.”
Community Cumuli, 2nd Place Team: Lauren Hunter and Valerie Pretto
Concept: “The afterlife of our mobile testing site became a vital piece to our design,” says Hunter of the structure inspired by a fluffy cumulus cloud, with pillowy inflatable surfaces, a calming blue gradient, and sunshine-filtering skylights. Pretto says the size of the modules facilitate natural airflow, minimize patient-to-patient contact, and allow flexibility for future programming. “The units could be used in response to other emergencies, such as in the event of a natural disaster, or host community activities such as farmers’ markets, salsa classes, community concerts, and so on. Its uses are as boundless as the imagination!”
Favorite speaker: For Hunter, Joe Doucet’s message of practicing effective design through optimism and empathy resonated. “COVID-19 has disrupted so many lives and has caused a lot of people to live in fear. It was crucial we understood the experience that people had while going through the testing process so we could design an effective solution,” she says. Pretto thought Marc Miller‘s lecture on narrative in architecture, particularly the difference between creativity and imagination, was especially incisive and influenced their submission. “While we may have been creative in the unit’s design, the unit was always meant to become something more than a testing site. And while we may have proposed several programs for the project’s afterlife, we would love nothing more than for communities to take claim and construct their own stories.”
Summer School Lessons: Architects have a responsibility to ensure their work has a positive impact on the world, Hunter says. “Events like the COVID-19 pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests have brought attention to the flaws in the system, [but] the most challenging times are often the best catalysts for positive changes in the future.” Pretto agrees and thinks the narratives and goals being pursued in design today don’t go far enough. “The incongruities between the risk of contracting COVID-19 as a minority and lack of accessibility to testing sites due to socioeconomic status has only strengthened my resolve in focusing and addressing the issues of social inequalities through design.”
Unfold, 3rd Place (tie) Team: Jiewei Li and Mrinalini Verma
Concept: “We looked at the problems exposed during the pandemic such as poverty, mental health, comfort level, and infectiousness,” Jiewei says. “Cost, mobility, and simple structure played leading roles in the Origami design.” Mrinalini adds that challenging social distancing norms played a central role in the design. “We were concerned about people’s anxieties during the waiting period and wanted to curate that journey: making it more comfortable, and creating distractions and visual connections to the outdoors.” Shigeru Ban’s simple, effective, and easy design responses to natural disasters inspired them during the design of the paper structure. “We were inclined towards using paper because it has a low virus-retention period and is cheap and low carbon. The design is also adaptable to different functions like outdoor studios and exhibitions.”
Favorite speaker: Count Jiewei as a new fan of Yves Behar. “ He enlightened me on how to make a powerful design. His works illustrate that different angles and scales will provide quite diverse outcomes. So when you feel the dead-end in the design, you may just need to find another angle.” Mrinalini says all of the speakers influenced their submission but likewise singled out Behar as a favorite. “His lecture made us rethink the bigger questions we are trying to bring out or solve through our design response.”
Summer School lessons: The pandemic is more than a medical problem, Jiewei says. “Doctors are not the only group who are fighting in this situation. We have this power as architects to make efforts.” For her part, Mrinalini has been contemplating the value of adaptive reuse. “Staying indoors for so many months has made us question what is essential and how certain spaces can be rethought and redesigned to adapt to more essential functions.”
Dimensioning Remembrance, 3rd Place (tie) Team: Molly Zmich and Hillary Morales Robles
Concept: Zmich and Morales Robles believe architecture has a responsibility to address issues like inequitable health practices and systemic racism. “It is our job as designers to not only question our role in solving these issues, but design spaces that can help to elevate the communities around us into a healthier and more equitable future.” Their submission focuses on the use of public space. “These spaces can be very politically and historically charged and due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we know that public space has become more important than ever. We wanted to create a project that deals with all the different complexities a site can offer, we wanted to create a testing unit that could challenge the narrative of this unprecedented time.”
Favorite speaker: V. Mitch McEwen’s lecture on the dual pandemics—COVID-19, white supremacy—resonated deeply with Zmich and Morales Robles. “There are so many issues that are often invisible to society. These events of Black Lives Matter protests and the global pandemic have brought everything to the surface. While these issues are not new, they have become more visible at this moment in time. The narrative of our project is rooted in utilizing multiple layers and challenging the way in which architecture can make visible so many societal issues.”
Summer School lessons: “The idea of remembrance for us has been so integral to this project. The act of visibility will always force us to remember the past. We hope that this project can create a public space that addresses both the casualties of the pandemic and the systemic racial injustices that are seen throughout our communities, by creating awareness to the necessity of remembrance.”
Concept: “We want people to get a safe and fast test, while also trying to comfort them in and around the testing station,” says Zhu of their modular, open–air concept called Breezing (Breathing) Cloud. “We found that the inflatable roof not only guarantees airtightness in the room, but also can be quickly assembled as part of the building.”
Favorite speaker(s): Both Cheng and Zhu found Yves Behar’s lecture on the power of design to solve problems really helpful to their creative process. “His VerBien project in which he proposed the different color combinations for the frames was very inspiring, mainly for its simplicity,” says Zhu, referring to Behar’s partnership with the Mexican government to supply affordable and stylish eyeglasses to underprivileged children. “Identifying one core problem and responding to it with simple solutions is the core methodology we took in our design.” Cheng also cited Thom Mayne’s presentation as one that stuck with them. “He is a hero to all architects.”
Summer School lessons: COVID-19 compelled Zhu to consider the resilience of built environments. “Our team talked about designing a device that can be implanted into existing buildings which are deserted in the pandemic,” he says. “In the near future, the adjustments to existing mega-scale buildings are a key topic for discussion.” Cheng says the program was a good reminder of the social and economic inequality that remains prevalent in society. “As architecture students, it is our responsibility to offer the architectural options to help eliminate those things.”
Concept: For this team, the testing unit’s afterlife was a critical consideration. “We wanted to distinguish the function of the pod during COVID (phase one) and post-COVID (phase two).” “By imagining what the pods could be used for after the pandemic, it allowed us to start thinking about how parts that would be used for Phase 1 could be removed and replaced for functionality in Phase 2, an affordable housing unit.” One of the most important factors during the design process was the adaptability of the screen “for advertisements to enable more affordable housing, or to engage [crowds] within protest movements.”
Favorite speaker: Ferda Kolatan‘s lecture was a big inspiration for the group’s final design. “Reinterpreting part to whole relationships and their functionality within design was something we were always considering, but his lecture completely reshaped how I began to imagine the pod working and coming apart to serve different functions.”
Summer School lessons: During his current internship at a design firm, Sabidussi’s work on a large hospital project has motivated him to pursue more healthcare-related work. “COVID-19 has completely reshaped the way we think about health and safety standards, further inspiring me to want to push healthcare design and systems in the future.”
Team: Hadi El Kebbi, Nicholas Houser, Anna Lim, Danny Ortega
Concept: Russian stacking dolls (Matryoshka dolls) inspired the modular, bronze–coated testing units, amassed in groups of three. “We were interested in how the doll inherently requires the user to disassemble its construction, revealing its layered characteristics throughout the deployment.” The group envisioned the size and scale of the structures to be flexible, able to fit into narrow spaces like back alleyways, and also be repurposed into homes for low-income communities after the pandemic subsides.
Favorite speaker: The focus on modularity and innovation in design and construction made Yves Behar’s lecture the team’s favorite. “From a robotic housing unit to a 3d printed housing community, all projects were extremely provocative in how much space, or the lack thereof, they took, serving both humanitarian and aesthetic purposes.”
Summer School lessons: “We were able to focus on investigating the specific conditions surrounding COVID testing in America and the inextricable issues of race and class embedded within them. It is fair to say that this is one of the loudest debates circling public platforms today. But under the larger umbrella of how design can ameliorate socioeconomic disparity, as nascent architects in the bubble of academia, such conversations have always been the birthing force behind our designs.”
Along with Dubbeldam, the jury included: Manuel Colon Amador, co-founder, Intemperie Studio; Yves Béhar, founder, Fuseproject; Annette Fierro, associate professor of architecture at Weitzman; Ferda Kolatan, founding director, su11, and associate professor of practice at Weitzman; Thom Mayne, founder and design director, Morphosis, Cret Chair Professor of Practice at Weitzman, and distinguished faculty Sci-Arc; Marc Miller, assistant professor, Stuckeman School of Architecture, Penn State University; Susan Sellers, founding partner and executive creative director, 2×4, and senior design critic, Yale School of Art; and Marion Weiss, Graham Professor of Practice at Weitzman and co-founder, WEISS/MANFREDI.
Guest jurors included: Mark Gardner, principal, Jaklitsch/Gardner Architects, professor of Architectural Practice & Society, School of Constructed Environments at Parsons the New School, and member of the Board of Overseers at Weitzman; and Joseph Scharzkopf, general manager, Uribe & Schwarzkopf.