Expressions of color, comfort, and creativity in the fight against COVID-19

During the Summer School at Penn, Weitzman students listened to lectures from world-renowned designers, had design reviews, and participated in a design competition to create mobile medical-testing units.

designs for drive thru and walk up testing sites in pastel colors
Overall layout of Hanqing Yao’s “FLIP IT,” the first-place design for the Surface Summer School’s design competition to create mobile testing facility that could be reused after the pandemic. (Image credit: Hanqing Yao)

With many summer internships disrupted by the pandemic, the Architecture Department at Penn partnered with Surface magazine to create the Summer School at Penn, a month-long virtual lecture series and design competition. During the four-week program, 76 students from the Stuart Weitzman School of Design listened to public lectures by world-renowned architects, educators, graphic and industrial designers, and doctors and submitted their designs for a mobile-testing unit. Their colorful and comforting creations showcase the rigorous in-depth research and power of optimism and demonstrate how architects and designers can help support the ongoing fight against the novel coronavirus. 

Design during the time of COVID-19

Architecture Department Chair Winka Dubbeldam was inspired by the many students who made face shields for health care workers and wanted to find a way to give something back. “I was impressed that the students, outside of having to do online coursework for the last half of semester, were also doing this. They really inspired us with their courage and empathy and willingness to help,” she says. Dubbeldam initiated this summer school for the students and was able to quickly find a wide range of designers and professors eager to support the students whose summer plans had been disrupted. 

During the month-long Summer School, lecturers provided guidance on designing buildings with a small footprint that can be assembled on site and also challenged students to be empathetic and inclusive. While the speakers came from a wide range of areas of expertise, Dubbeldam says she was surprised that one of the common themes was to understand it was really about the people who visited the pavilion and for the students to also simply enjoy the process. “Almost all of them ended with, ‘And knowing all that, just have fun designing this,’” she says. 

In addition to lectures covering topics such as the parallels between white supremacy and COVID-19 and how the pandemic unfolded in Guayaquil, Ecuador, several Penn professors shared their insights: Thom Mayne discussed the importance of problem formulation. Ferda Kolatan encouraged students to take inspiration from personal protective equipment to create mobile-testing stations that are “somewhere between design, utilitarian, and art objects.” 
Marion Weiss told students how much their talents are needed at this challenging time, saying, “You all have gifts to bring to the world that could be small and impactful by their distribution in the millions or impactful in their singularity to change a city.”

Creating safe and comfortable spaces

The Summer School Super Jury received 35 submissions for creating a mobile-testing facility that could be reused after the pandemic. Seven winners were announced earlier this month: Hanqing Yao for “FLIP IT” in first place, Lauren Hunter and Valerie Pretto for “Community Cumuli” in second, and Jiewei Li and Mrinalini Verma’s “UNFOLD” and Hillary Morales and Molly Zmich’s “Dimensioning Remembrance” tied for third place. 

Inspired by Thom Mayne’s idea of combining a testing center with an ice cream stand as well as Weiss’ concept of the “playscape,” master’s of architecture student Yao designed a mobile-testing unit with versatility and comfort in mind. Using simple and playful geometries made from prefabricated components, “FLIP IT” is designed to, quite literally, flip in different directions to serve different functions—be it a walk-through testing site or, post-pandemic, a children’s play area. 

The space is also designed to provide shaded spaces in soft, pastel colors to make the setting comfortable and relaxing. “I am trying to create a more enjoyable and safer space for patients going through a serious medical process and the doctors who dedicate so much to the control of the disease,” says Yao. “The unique views and forms give people a refreshing and positive experience while being tested in a pandemic.”

community cumuli catalog showing different sizes and shapes of objects, including main center, walk-in testing station, private nurse station, car testing station, family passage, and individual passage
Inspired by the simplified and graphically-driven instructions made by IKEA, Community Cumuli’s catalog of individual units can be assembled and rearranged by anyone. (Image credit: Lauren Hunter and Valerie Pretto)

While trying to empathize with the experience of those being tested, master’s of architecture students Hunter and Pretto wanted to provide an environment that was universal and calming. “Community Cumuli” embodies the softness and lightness of clouds and is made of a light yet durable plastic, one that can be easily cleaned when used as a testing site and also able to be reshaped into something new. “We imagined this as being something that existed beyond COVID for disaster relief, temporary housing, or a pavilion where people gather. We also designed several different pieces that could be linked together, allowing people to have control over what they want and what they need,” says Hunter. 

Hunter and Pretto set out to stay engaged, to learn as much as they could from the program, and, overall, to have fun. “I think that attitude has definitely shown through the design,” says Pretto. “It’s playful, it’s fun, it’s lighthearted, and that attitude really did influence the design of the project.”

While developing UNFOLD, environmental building design master’s students Jiewei Li and Mrinalini Verma were inspired by Yves Behar’s lecture on how to rethink design problems. They came up with a two-layered structure made of composite paper, which is easy to pre-fabricate and also has low virus retention. The outer layer, where people wait to be tested, is separated yet interwoven with the inner layer where the procedure takes place. “We first looked at how people get tested now: They build a tent, and you wait in line. When it’s raining, it will be difficult, and we felt that there must be some shade,” says Li about their dual-layered design. “We want to build a good environment for people while they are waiting to be tested.”

Prototyped using paper and inspired by origami structures, their final design also incorporates basic principles of upward ventilation to provide a space where people could still be safe from exposure even if they were less than six feet apart. “We brought in the design question of how we can challenge social distancing norms,” says Verma of how Behar’s lecture inspired them to think about how to address design challenges differently. 

an interior of a testing center on the right next to a diagram on the left showing pre-checkup journey, ID check, social distancing mark, sample collection, and post-checkup info and exhibition on the top with a diagram of the center from above, on the bottom the testing center is shown from the side
Inspired by and prototyped with origami and paper, Jiewei Li and Mrinalini Verma’s “UNFOLD” has a two layered structure that separates the waiting area from the testing site. (Image credit: Jiewei Li and Mrinalini Verma)

Inspired by V. Mitch McEwen’s presentation on the dual pandemics of COVID-19 and racism, master’s of architecture students Morales and Zmich created a testing site that could serve as a memorial for those who lost their lives to COVID-19. “We took this project as an opportunity to start a conversation: how to make this space for the present in terms of the health necessities but also in terms of remembrance because our process of mourning is restricted. It’s a very reflective project,” says Morales. 

As their design began to take shape during recent protests around racial injustice, they also realized how important site selection would be. With a national movement supporting the removal of racist monuments, they found an opportunity to turn these newly emptied public spaces into testing sites. “We are facing two pandemics, social and health, and that is something that, as a designer, is unusual to address,” Zmich says. “We also realized the importance of creating public space, which is now the space where people can be together, and that was what drove our idea.”

Architectural responsibility

Dubbeldam enjoyed being able to stay connected to and to give back to the students that have always been an inspiration to her and to so many others in the School. “We had a lot of conversations about all the issues that were going on, and it was nice to be close in this very difficult period,” she says. 

Many participants credit the diverse set of speakers as a great feature of the program and one that they hope to see continue in the future. “We as architects need to involve other professions throughout our design process in order to accurately inform our projects, projects that can be attentive not only to the user experience but to their functionality in the future,” says Pretto.

It’s also apparent that cities are actively transforming, from outdoor seating at restaurants to changes in everyday social interactions, and how important these smaller scale interventions will continue to be. “Building a bunch of buildings is not the answer right now, but our creative problem solving, thinking about how to readjust space, is something that architects are going to need to help with going forward,” says Zmich. 

Inspired to join the Summer School to find ways to address the coronavirus crisis, Verma is now interested in using her skills to think about new ways to retrofit existing spaces so they can be more open and healthier. “Staying indoors for so many months made a question of what spaces are really essential and how spaces that can’t be used during a pandemic like this could be redesigned to adapt to more essential functions.”  

Hunter says that because people want to be able to experience places beyond their sense of sight, being mindful of people’s interactions with public spaces will need to be a key consideration for designers in the future. “We really have to think about how people interact with architecture: how you open a door or flip on a light switch, especially when you are in a public place” she says.

Li agrees that re-thinking how to use existing spaces will be essential in the future and is thankful that, as an architect, he knows that he has a role in the ongoing fight against the novel coronavirus. “When the pandemic started, I was very lost. I felt like only medical people are fighting the virus. I felt like for architects, it was hard to take part, but in this competition, I feel like we can do something by our design.”  

a child looks at a memorial with names etched onto a gray plate
Hillary Morales and Molly Zmich designed “Dimensioning Remembrance” as a testing site that, post-pandemic, could be repurposed into a memorial for those that lost their lives to COVID-19. (Image credit: Hillary Morales and Molly Zmich)

Morales emphasizes that encouraging designers to be more conscientious will also be essential. “The community is something that people should be aware of during the design process. We are serving people and making things for people, and we need to think about them and their lives not as a secondary thing but as something that’s integral to the design process,” she says. 

After deciding to stay in Philadelphia because of the uncertainty around the pandemic, Yao joined the Summer School because of her optimism that things could get better through everyone’s effort, an optimism that shows through in her and the other students’ designs. “The Summer School was a great opportunity to make a positive voice in the pandemic and to rethink what design can bring to society,” says Yao. “Architects are taking more responsibility for making people safer.”

Winka Dubbeldam is Miller Professor and Chair of the Department of Architecture in the Stuart Weitzman School of Design at the University of Pennsylvania

The Super Jury included Winka Dubbeldam, Annette Fierro, Ferda Kolatan, Thom Mayne, and Marion Weiss from the Stuart Weitzman School of Design; Yves Béhar from Fuseproject; Marc Miller from Pennsylvania State University; Susan Sellers from Yale University; Mark Gardner, a master’s of architecture alum who graduated in 2000; and Joseph Scharzkopf from Uribe Schwarzkopf. 

For the complete list of lecturers and links to recordings, visit the Surface Summer School at Penn event website

Participants receiving honorable mentions are Beikel Rivas, Miguel Matos, and Dario Sabidussi for “Personal Protective Pod”; Fang Cheng, Shifei Xu, and Chengzhe Zhu for “Breezing/Breathing Cloud”; and Hadi El Kebbi, Nicholas Houser, Anna Lim, and Danny Ortega for “Matryoshka Kit.” All participants in the program are graduate students in the Weitzman School of Design. Images from proposals can be viewed on the Weitzman Flickr.