This is what public spaces will be like for you post-pandemic: touchless buttons, natural air, flexible layouts – and more QR codes

QR codes, K11 Musea in Tsim Sha Tsui

You need to use a lift, but don’t dare push a button touched by unknown fingers. With people still jabbing at touch panels with their keys, pens, tissue-covered digits – anything that will do the job without involving direct physical contact – there is clearly still a collective apprehension around frequenting public buildings where large numbers congregate. Making such infrastructure Covid-19-safe, and convincing the public that this is the case, is now one of the design sector’s biggest challenges.

The design of public spaces and infrastructure is already adapting to the “new normal” post-pandemic, explains Nic Banks, founding director of architectural design studio Atelier Pacific. “It’s amazing how quickly some of the public-realm design has started to change,” he says, citing the installation of touchless lift buttons at MTR stations, Hong Kong International Airport (HKIA), and various public and private buildings in Hong Kong.

HKIA’s system, called kNOw Touch, was developed by the Hong Kong Productivity Council (HKPC) in response to Covid-19. The system is a cost-efficient technology adaptable to different control panels and easily retrofitted into lifts in all types of buildings, says Lawrence Poon, general manager of HKPC’s smart city division.

It is innovations like this that will give the public the confidence to shop, travel, dine out and mingle freely again once Covid-19 restrictions allow, Banks says, adding that airports, by their nature, are a prime candidate to lead the change.

QR codes, K11 Musea in Tsim Sha Tsui

Airports already function at near-optimal level, Nic Banks says, so new measures will be more about tracking people than infection control. Image: Atelier Pacific

However, while we might wave at lifts and nod to cleaning robots as they scuttle about, don’t expect to see major differences in terms of interior architecture. Banks, whose design studio is currently working on HKIA’s third runway concourse, and which recently completed an interior and signage design project at Macau International Airport, argues that major airports already function at near-optimal level.

New measures will be more about tracking people movement rather than limited to infection control, he says, with the scanning of QR codes throughout airports becoming commonplace. While there might be some public resistance over privacy, Banks expects QR codes to become an accepted part of the airport experience post-Covid-19, just as increased security did after 9/11.

“It makes commercial sense for airlines to know where their passengers are, and for retail outlets to track their customers,” Banks says. “I think airports were moving in this direction anyway – the pandemic has accelerated this trend.”

Designers must deal with these controls so that passengers feel safe and respected, Banks says. This is achieved by creating permanent pathways in the interior landscape where people are continuously moving forward, while allowing them scope to stop and sit down or browse in airport shops.

Shopping malls, however, will experience a major shift in design, says Carrie Ho, principal and retail sector leader at architecture and design firm Hassell. She envisages space being rearranged to allow for more public areas that have natural air circulating, without altering the footprint of the building. This can be achieved by cribbing space from corridors that would typically lead patrons towards shops in different parts of the mall.

“Since the riskiest time for getting infected is when we take off the face mask to have a meal, large F&B areas like food courts need to be redefined as well,” she adds. She envisages more cafes, or small food stores, located within shops, reducing the movement of people through the mall.

QR codes, K11 Musea in Tsim Sha Tsui

Park Avenue Central in Shanghai, a Hassell project slated for opening in 2023, will consist of a 180-metre-high tower surrounded by a fully integrated retail- and nature-filled public realm. Image: Hassell

Access to outdoor terraces and sky gardens, where available, is ideal, Ho says, just as K11 Musea in Tsim Sha Tsui and Hysan Place in Causeway Bay have achieved on multiple levels.

Ho also sees mall owners rethinking underused areas, as Hongkong Land has done with Belowground, a 560-square-metre (6,000-square-foot) retail, culture and art space opened in December 2020 in the basement of Landmark Atrium in Central, and BaseHall, a multi-concept food hall opened in June 2020 on the lower ground floor of Jardine House.

Although the design of these two projects predates the pandemic, Ho says their concepts show forward-thinking design where public spaces can scale up or down.

“BaseHall, being a hawker-style food market with lots of different options, can work for just takeaway when needed as well as dine-in, with either full or limited seating capacity, and when the situation allows, can include events with lots of people in the space,” she says.

“Similarly, at Belowground, the flexibility of design and variety of spaces means the modular elements – the shops, the exhibition space, the cafe and radio station – can function either separately or work together for a complete experience.”

Developers always have a plan to review their mall every 10 to 15 years. Now some are telling me that what they might have done in five years’ time, they are starting to look at now

Carrie Ho, principal and retail sector leader, Hassell

New concepts are also evident at Park Avenue Central in Shanghai, a Hassell project for Singapore’s Keppel Land. Slated to open in 2023, the 180-metre-high tower is surrounded by a fully integrated retail- and nature-filled public realm.

“By offering so much space, nature and indoor/outdoor convergence, the project is conducive to Covid considerations, as well as other public health concerns that may arise in the future,” Ho says. “The spaces allow for people to spread out, for varied programming, and they also work well at different times of the year. It’s a transitional space where urban character gradually dissolves into immersive nature.”

Designers have seen the value of creating abundant public space within retail developments that people can use at any time of the day or night, Ho says. At Sanlin InCity, Hassell’s renovation of an underperforming mall in Shanghai which reopened in early 2019, a full outdoor sunken plaza and an indoor/outdoor space showed their versatility during different stages of the pandemic.

“During lockdown times, when there was a full closure of the mall, people could still use the outdoor space to sit or walk around in,” Ho says. “During partial openings, they could come in and either shop or get takeaways, and as a fully functioning mall the outdoor spaces are used by all ages for gatherings, events, play and exercise.”

QR codes, K11 Musea in Tsim Sha Tsui

At Sanlin InCity in Shanghai, outdoor spaces could still be used during lockdowns. Photo: Hassell

QR codes, K11 Musea in Tsim Sha Tsui

Inside Sanlin InCity. Photo: Hassell

Ho believes that mall owners are willing to invest in such changes, for which Covid-19 has accelerated the need. “Developers always have a plan to review their mall every 10 to 15 years,” she says. “Now some are telling me that what they might have done in five years’ time, they are starting to look at now.”

While Banks agrees that Covid-19 controls are easier to manage in cultural and retail precincts than in other public places like airports and hospitals, he says that people still need to feel safe using those facilities. Apart from more open-plan spatial design, the choice of finishing materials has been affected, he says. “For example, the use of natural wood has been cut back, as it’s not as easy to clean as stainless steel.”

As part of Hong Kong’s Architectural Services Department team, Atelier Pacific was the signage designer for the Hong Kong Museum of Art (HKMoA), which officially reopened in February 2020, and for the M+ visual culture museum in the West Kowloon Cultural District. For precincts of this scale, porosity of borders is essential, Banks says.

“Porous borders” is explained as the freedom to transition between one venue and the next without consciously stepping over a threshold. Although this may pose some issues from the perspective of public health screening post-pandemic, it’s the way public space planning is heading. How to reconcile the intentions of porous planning with post-Covid-19 demands and expectations is a challenge designers are now working to overcome, Banks says.

QR codes, K11 Musea in Tsim Sha Tsui

Atelier Pacific were behind the signage and wayfinding design at the Hong Kong Museum of Art. Photo: Atelier Pacific

If he was designing HKMoA today, with the benefit of pandemic hindsight, would he make any changes?

“No, we wouldn’t change anything architectural – just incorporate further checking technology to monitor visitors,” he says. “If you think of a museum or gallery space today, by its very nature it’s already designed to accommodate the change. Gone are the days of static design in public cultural institutions.”

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