Vital Adaptability: Field Hospitals During the Pandemic

Cities have always been a stage for transformations. The directions, the flows, the different ways of using the spaces, the desires, all change and give way to new places and needs. Such richness provides the city with an innovative and mutable character, but it also implies demand for more flexible architecture in terms of the functional program and structure. Especially during the past year, we have witnessed – at breakneck speed – great changes in the cities and urban spaces. The pandemic brought new paradigms that suddenly disrupted long-established norms. Houses became offices, offices became deserts, hotels turned into health facilities, and stadiums turned into hospitals. Meanwhile, architecture has had to reveal its flexibility to support purposes that could not be foreseen. This adaptability seems to have become the key to creating spaces that are coherent with our current lifestyle and the speed of modern times.

This adaptability has been highlighted by the pandemic, mainly because the situation required a much faster pace of adaptations, but it has been present throughout the history of architecture. Emblematic projects such as SESC Pompeia or the Pinacoteca de São Paulo carry layers of other times and other uses, reflecting a concern for sustainable architecture that recognizes a building’s stillness as an opportunity for transformation.

This process gives new meanings to places, affecting how we perceive the urban landscape and our sense of belonging to the space. However, unlike the permanent works mentioned above, which allow neglected spaces to survive, the process of urban adaptability during the pandemic was more complex, not only because the new uses were only temporary, but also because of the psychological and emotional burden these changes carried with them. Adapting soccer stadiums into field hospitals is perhaps one of the most emblematic examples of the situation. The pitches that used to serve as places of entertainment and leisure now give way to pain and anguish in a dark moment of human history, and the sports industry had to perform a new social role, just like so many other facilities.

Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in New York City, April, 2020. New York National Guard. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Major Patrick Cordova)
Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in New York City, April, 2020. New York National Guard. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Major Patrick Cordova)

In this context, ephemeral architecture flourishes amidst large structures giving new life to places that are already full of meaning. Driven by a concept of transience, they quickly respond to an emergency by introducing very current types of architecture inspired by indigenous huts, circus tents, igloos, all assembled to save lives.

With the pandemic, field hospitals were built in stadiums due to their size and complex structure designed to receive a large number of people. Also, their location was a major advantage since they are normally conveniently integrated into the urban network and infrastructure. Within a few days, the pitches were transformed into hospitals with hundreds of beds. The facility at Ginásio do Ibirapuera, for example, has 268 beds and was assembled in only 15 days. To achieve this impressive speed, choosing the right construction method is crucial. Most temporary hospitals in Brazil were built using tensile systems, which is the most common structure when it comes to temporary emergency architecture. This structure consists of a flexible system with sturdy components made of steel, wood, or even plastic, that are quickly assembled. This type of construction is very common in events and fairs and was adapted for this purpose in a maze-like tangle of flame-resistant canvas tents, partitions, and elevated floors.

Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in New York City, April, 2020. New York National Guard. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Major Patrick Cordova)
Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in New York City, April, 2020. New York National Guard. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Major Patrick Cordova)

However, it is also worth emphasizing that this was a great challenge for architects mainly because it was new to everyone involved, and there was no model to be followed, resulting in a very complex project with a very short deadline for completion. Moreover, the program was completely different even from other field hospitals, requiring carefully defined and separated spaces due to the virus being extremely transmissible.

Other stadiums that were used as field hospitals include the Pacaembu Stadium in São Paulo, with 192 beds, the Maracanã Stadium in Rio de Janeiro, with a total of 400 beds, the Octávio Mangabeira Cultural Sports Complex in Salvador, with more than 100 beds, among others. This initiative was inspired by other countries that have adopted the same strategy in world-famous stadiums such as the Signal Iduna Park, the home of Borussia Dortmund in Germany, which served as a field hospital, the Santiago Bernabéu, the home stadium of Real Madrid, which became a center for storing medical equipment, and the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in London, which provided testing facilities for the population.

Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in New York City, April, 2020. New York National Guard. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Major Patrick Cordova)
Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in New York City, April, 2020. New York National Guard. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Major Patrick Cordova)

These examples show how, within just a few weeks, the pandemic called for the construction of dozens of temporary buildings, not only field hospitals, but also quarantine centers, warehouses for medical equipment, and even cemeteries, thus challenging architectural projects to go far beyond the functions for which the buildings were originally intended. Creating temporary structures became unavoidable, strategic, and even vital, thereby putting into question the historical durability of architecture and indicating a shift in cultural and symbolic values.

However, the pandemic only highlighted a growing concern. The concept of emergency architecture has been addressed many times, engaging multidisciplinary teams in the search to create urgent solutions. We are living amid humanitarian crises, mass migrations, terrorism, climate change, environmental catastrophes, among many other problems. These situations demand fast and precise architectural responses that can be adapted and reused. It is a critical context in which creating public buildings for a single specific purpose has become an almost inconceivable luxury.

Volatility is a trait of our time and requires flexible solutions to adapt to constant change, either personal or societal, leaving us with the reminder that life is unpredictable for all of us.

This article is part of the ArchDaily Topic: Adaptive Reuse. Every month we explore a topic in-depth through articles, interviews, news, and projects. Learn more about our monthly topics. As always, at ArchDaily we welcome the contributions of our readers; if you want to submit an article or project, contact us.