Design and Heal shows how epidemics lead to innovation

Before I entered Cooper Hewitt’s new exhibit, “Design and Healing: Creative Responses to Epidemics,” I wondered if the most museum-worthy thing to see from Covid-19 would be a bloodstained hospital “gown” of rubbish bags and showers. hat.

That would sum up America’s lack of preparedness for the pandemic threat — and communities’ continued failure to learn from the horrors that New York City endured during the virus’s early weeks. Caregivers abiding by the Hippocratic oath are still at risk from the exposed and unvaccinated, who are bound not to swear an oath to others at all.

At the Smithsonian Design Museum in Manhattan, visitors won’t see the most charged images of the pandemic, arguably appropriate in a time when we’re still living through Covid and the toll it draws. But besides the custodians, they may come to see this global emergency, like the plagues of the past, as a wellspring of extraordinary invention, enabling people to come together to solve problems in real time, bypassing bureaucratic barriers and old habits.

Innovation was the silver lining of Covid. The exhibition shows how, throughout history, epidemic disease has shaped behavior and warfare, and the buildings and infrastructure of cities. Face masks, ventilators, and tent hospitals are on display, but they gain great resonance from the rich historical context that is included.

These elements are the legacy of an earlier iteration of the exhibition, “Design and the Future of Healthcare,” which was envisioned before the pandemic – Covid demanded a focus on what’s on display now. It was organized by Cooper Hewitt’s Senior Curator of Contemporary Design, Elaine Lupton, and architect Michael Murphy, who leads MASS Design Group, a Boston-based nonprofit organization that has been on the front lines of epidemiology for years. It has built facilities to help people recover from infectious diseases in some of the world’s poorest and most conflict-prone places, including Haiti and Rwanda. On December 9, the American Institute of Architects announced MASS as the winner of the Architectural Firm of the Year 2022, among its highest honors.

The exhibition is loosely based on themes: the therapeutic qualities of light and air, the means of spreading viruses, and therapeutic innovation in hospitals and intensive care settings. The exhibition’s initial theme is “Body Observation,” which is presented upon entry by a mannequin fitted with sensors that artist Samuel Staplefield has used on human subjects to generate a sound and light installation.

The dividing line of the exhibition is our basic need to breathe safe air. “Breathing is a spatial problem,” Murphy told me during a tour. We wouldn’t need to resort to a constant social distance of six feet if we could only see and dodge the viruses circulating around us.

Headquartered in Florence, Italy, Caret Studio elegantly urges a break by demarcating a yard in Vicchio with a specific tablecloth pattern called “StoDistante.” In New York, photos by Jennifer Tobias document the hieroglyphic beauty of the signs of social distancing clinging to city sidewalks: butterflies, hearts, and colorful abstractions that gradually erase the heels of countless passersby.

“Design and Healing” dates back to the 1850s, when pioneering nurse Florence Nightingale transformed battlefield medicine by realizing that infectious diseases in field hospitals killed far more soldiers than their injuries. At about the same time, Doctor Jon Snow mapped the distribution of a cholera outbreak in London. While authorities blamed the dirty habits of the poor for the spread of the disease, Snow linked that data to areas served by private water supply companies, showing that polluted water from a single pump was responsible for the outbreak.

Nightingale will take her battlefield vision to hospital design, which has transformed the architecture of those buildings by separating clean air from polluted, along with sanitation and sunlight — dramatically improving patient outcomes. Its legacy is found in the narrow, daylight-filled pavilions and elegant curved balconies of the extremely beautiful 1933 Paimio Sanatorium, designed by Alvar and Aino Aalto in Paimio, Finland. These forms aided in natural ventilation and captured the healing rays of the sun, enhancing the image of modern European architecture as healthy and wholesome.

Thanks to Snow and others, the health of cities will change through the provision of clean water and sanitation. Later work on new epidemiology would trace the source of diseases such as tuberculosis and rickets to poor ventilation and lack of access to sunlight. Although not covered in the gallery, these ideas led to New York banning dark, airless housing, light courts, and “wedding cake” building setbacks to deliver sunlight and breezes to streets and squares.

Design and Heal explains how MASS Design Group has brought the lessons of Nightingale and Snow into the 21st century via clinics for Gheskio in Haiti, where clean water and energy are lacking. The tuberculosis clinic directs natural airflow into patients’ rooms and the healing garden through exquisite barbecue made by local artisans. The undulating roof of a cholera clinic harvests rainwater and pulls out daylight. Contaminated wastewater is cleaned with an anaerobic reactor that is sterilized by biological means.

Among the countless masks created by amateur sewers and professional dressmakers to filter breath, the handcrafted collection shows elegant adaptations of turbans (designed by Timzi Batra) and veils (made by Halima Aden). Icelandic artist Ýrúrarí has ​​produced a cohesive mask that is clear if not particularly effective: a pink tongue emerges from jerky teeth and lips of red lips and twists as if pressing the mask around the nose, a humorous acknowledgment of how incompetent people are—well, me, anyway—in Try to close their masks properly. Other masks express political views: one with the phrase “I can’t breathe” checks the box of anti-police brutality while emphasizing Covid’s repeated destruction of the lungs.

A picture of babies’ little heads peeking out of a tank-like iron lung a lot like the picture shown reminds me of how scared I was of polio as a child, and why I was more than willing to receive the polio vaccine, which was widely regarded as a miracle in the late 1950s.

However, those breathing machines, in a less brutal form, are starting to make a comeback. The exhibit shows that external pressure is being applied by newer, more portable and less intimidating versions of the iron lung, such as the Shaash, the negative pressure ventilator shown here. It is designed and produced by Karnaphuli Industries of Bangladesh and is less harmful to the body than respirators that require physical intubation and sometimes long-term sedation.

Although many people use fitness monitors, the need to avoid contact with medical staff throughout the Covid-19 pandemic has broken the taboo that prevents the sharing of most of our personal health information. Beginning with devices like thermometers and pulse oximeters, the information capture device market has exploded. Design and Heal displays several sensors that monitor different body functions. The data that is generated provides clinicians and patients with real-time information that can warn of dangerous medical attacks. Joanna Shulman, who was a consultant on digital health innovation in Tiburon, California, tells me that the era of behavior modification by these body sensors is approaching — to treat substance abuse, aid weight loss, treat depression, you name it. The show doesn’t talk about the capabilities of the sensor technology it showcases, so it can’t deal with the complex ethical pitfalls inherent in using the intimate information they collect.

Also displayed is a black poster with a pink triangle and the phrase “Silence = Death”, an iconic object from the early AIDS era, perhaps to remind us that there is no equivalent call for Covid Action today. The poster was produced for ACT UP, and it speaks to the urgency of the activity in the most straightforward terms. The group galvanized people to join the brazen theatrical protests that brought the toll of the AIDS epidemic to the doorstep of agencies like the Centers for Disease Control, which were slow to respond (and confronted a then-unidentified official named Anthony Fauci). That so many people still resist protecting themselves and others through masks and vaccination is the communication failure characteristic of the Covid pandemic.

The humble “determination and healing” cannot begin to capture the grief that must be done over Covid’s colossal losses, nor the account of our overall and individual failures that must occur. It helps us appreciate optimism amid despair, and celebrates extraordinary accomplishments under duress. The long history of epidemiological innovation gives us faith that we can still navigate the era of Covid and come out a little better than we used to go.

Design and Healing: Creative Responses to Epidemics

Until February 20, 2023, at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, 2 East 91st St. , (212) 849-8400;

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