Still from Andrés Jaque and Ivan L. Munuera’s The Transscalar Architecture of COVID-19.
In mid-March, a still from the reality show Big Brother in Germany circulated on the Internet. It showed the contestants, who had been locked in a house together since early February, relaxing in a hot tub, blissfully unaware of the pandemic surging across the globe. Producers, from behind a glass partition, informed the group on live TV of the pandemic, presenting them with news clips of a world newly defined by six-foot social-distancing guidelines and health-screening checkpoints. The Big Brother hot tub image appears in the short film The Transscalar Architecture of COVID-19—a collaboration between the architect Andrés Jaque, the architectural historian Iván L. Munuera, and Jaque’s Office for Political Innovation—as a reminder of how swiftly the virus changed the world. The film is a collection of found images (sourced from newspapers, scientific journals, and Twitter users) depicting a world bracing for, reorganizing around, and failing to contain the pandemic, set to a low drone soundscape by the composers Jorge López Conde and Clarice Jensen.
Scaling out from the microscopic into the architectural, the film begins with scientific diagrams of the novel coronavirus’s spikes and spores and moves through laboratories, the gilded interiors of a cruise ship populated by people in hazmat suits, and into a makeshift morgue. We see full-body scanners, thermal imaging drones, and robots dispatched to spray disinfectants; we see protesters, essential workers, and balcony exercise classes.
The film’s wide range of scales reflects the spatial manifestations of practices designed to mete out injustice, explicitly or insidiously: lines where access to health care is granted or denied; borders where bodies are made criminal; boardrooms where power and net worth are sheltered. We see the world not only rendered through the logic of epidemiology or public health, but through the technical and political apparatuses of the camera, news organizations, and social media. Virality folds in onto itself when contagion and content converge. Chyrons and data visualization graphics organize our surroundings as much as architectural and infrastructural interventions, the film reminds us. And ever more so, as we are told to stay inside and access the world through our screens.
Reflecting on the pandemic, the philosopher Achille Mbembe remarked, “Try as we might to rid ourselves of it, in the end everything brings us back to the body.” In their respective practices, Jaque and Munuera are consistently attuned to the politics of bodies (particularly nonnormative, and also nonhuman, bodies) in space—notably in Jaque’s IKEA Disobedients (2012), in which he repurposed the company’s ubiquitous furniture to facilitate transgressive lifestyles typically excluded from the brand’s advertising, and Munuera’s scholarship on “Discotecture,” the architecture of New York City’s nightclub scene during the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis. This is evident, too, in The Transscalar Architecture of COVID-19 where footage shows that the occupation of spaces is an embodied social practice. These instances in the film are based on mutual aid, rent and labor strikes, and the persistent self-reliance of migrant and refugee communities.
The film’s scalar conceit is reminiscent of Charles and Ray Eames’s classic Powers of Ten (1977), a visual exploration of the orders of magnitude of everyday life that zooms from a quaint scene of a picnicking couple down to the microscopic and out into the expanse of the cosmos. Jaque has criticized Powers of Ten for rendering the complex and often violent texture of daily life in the universe as “smooth, frictionless, and apolitical.” The Transscalar Architecture of COVID-19 defies the neat logarithmic zoom of Powers of Ten—offering no seamless transitions, only a flood of images. Scale and quantity, for Jaque and Munuera, reveal how political power functions spatially. Fittingly, as the images in the film accumulate we experience the messiness that we have come to expect from current politics.
There is no shortage of reflections, artistic or otherwise, on the COVID-19 crisis, and no doubt there will be more in the months and years to come. The Transscalar Architecture of COVID-19 stands out for its underproduced quality and its makers’ real-time, in-progress processing of the pandemic. As an inconclusive but well-curated cache of images, it is an offering for future rumination.