Architecture Studio II: Connections
Harvard GSD, Spring 2015
Taught by Zaneta Hong
Understanding, engaging, and re-imaging the urban condition with all its complexities, structures, processes, and idiosyncrasies has become a pressing issue for architects, landscape architects, and urban designers alike. This studio focused on urban conditions as a byproduct of the connections between both human and nonhuman frameworks [systems + environments]. Using diagramming and mapping processes, both iteratively and speculatively, students investigated system - environment relationships through the examination of qualities, behaviors, and territories for a select set of urban agents.
Assignments: Research, diagrams, and models of a chosen urban agent [virus; specifically 2009 H1N1 influenza virus].
My tracking of the movement of the 2009 H1N1 pandemic has exposed not only biological consequences—life and death, contraction and immunity, uncontrolled spread and controlled deployment—but also the geopolitical and socioeconomic disparities that underlie different countries’ reaction to this crisis. Disparity and inequality between countries on a systemic level largely determined the biological consequences.
What defined the H1N1 spread of 2009 as a “pandemic” distinct from the regular annual influenza season was not the absolute number of people who died globally, but rather its vast geographic spread and reach over a short period of time. The virus affected nearly every country in the world within a few months, from North Korea to Iceland to remote aboriginal tribes in Venezuela—it revealed how little geographic distance mattered in this day and age. For an agent like the H1N1 virus, globalization, cross-continental travel, and the lack of true isolation have rearranged the notion of “distance.” From the perspective of my agent, conventional geopolitical boundaries also do not hold great significance, except in so far as some states have greater capacity than others to vaccinate and treat the citizens contained within their borders.
I began my research with a study of the opposition between the uncontrolled viral spread, and its counterpart, the controlled deployment of the vaccine. The virus operated with the metric of one-to- many transmission, without discrimination between ethnicities, gender, age, nation states, wealth or poverty. It was fast moving, with a supply that self-replicated indefinitely as long as there was a viable presence of hosts within a certain incubation period. It could travel along any infrastructure that human hosts could use—short distances on foot (e.g. school children were some of the key carriers), as well as long distances via international flights. The virus was thus able to reach some 200 countries within three months of the original outbreak in Veracruz, Mexico.
Its counterpart, the vaccine, operated through a controlled, finite, manufactured deployment that had to be organized through human institutions. It had a one-to-one transmission rate: one vaccine could treat one person. In addition, there was a clear bottleneck on supply due to its primary mode of manufacture—testing and synthesis by a few private pharmaceutical companies, and incubation of the vaccine in chicken’s eggs. This led to an enormous backlog and deficit on vaccine supply, as it normally takes up to seven months to create a new vaccine. Even when vaccines did become available, there was a clear hierarchy of access: high-income, developed countries such as China, the U.S., Canada, France, Australia, and Japan were the first countries to gain access to large quantities of the vaccine. Within these countries, there was also a hierarchy of access that prioritized pregnant women, health and government workers, children, and of course, wealthy individuals who could afford an early treatment.
Meanwhile, more than 100 other countries in the world could neither afford to manufacture the vaccine themselves, nor buy the vaccine at market price. Therefore, it fell to the World Health Organization to coordinate a global vaccine donation deployment that would transfer surplus vaccine dosages from donor countries to countries in need—of course, only after it was discovered that only one, rather than two dosages of the vaccine would be sufficient for immunization, effectively doubling the supply. Mapping the terrain of resistance to the virus through two variables—1. the point in time when vaccines were made available to each country, and 2. the percentage of the population that was vaccinated—showed deep disparities. For example, China was the first country to offer a vaccination program in September 2009 (five months after the outbreak), and had 8% coverage of its population of 1.3 billion (nearly 107 million dosages administered). Somalia, on the other hand, was nearly last on the WHO’s list of vaccine recipients. It received its donations over a year later, in November 2010, and had a coverage of 0.7% of its population of 9.6 million (67,452 dosages administered).
My research made it clear to me that there are deep inequalities at every level of observation—not just at the global scale between the virus and the vaccine, not just at the regional scale of WHO groups, but also within cities and between neighbourhoods. These disparities—social, economic, political—are what make a biological pandemic so striking.