Cleaned out by COVID

Nature’s reclaiming of public spaces in a quarantined world

Living on-campus during the first few months of quarantine made me privy to an experience that others like me may find familiar: walking through the coffee shop, the green, and the forest and seeing no one there.

I imagine that this is a far from uncommon experience nowadays. The effects of the quarantine and social distancing on our usual environments have been well-documented, from the usually tourist-filled streets of Oxford being deserted to penguins being allowed to wander now-empty aquariums. The experience, especially when felt personally, is definitely an eerie one—but that alone seems to sell it a bit short.

Being in places that were ordinarily well-occupied in the midst of this pandemic let me see them in, well, their “natural” state.

Being in places that were ordinarily well-occupied in the midst of this pandemic let me see them in, well, their “natural” state. I noticed things about their architecture and atmosphere that I had never noticed before. The way the evening light slants into and warms up the back of the coffee shop, for instance, was more luminous and relaxing than the times I have been there with people around. The interplay of the warm colors on the walls and accompanying dark furniture made it even cozier. It being without people made it easier to appreciate how the whole place was put together; I was able to enjoy the light and peace fully without any worries about how odd it would look.

There are other places where this same effect applies; being in the Forest late at night, even before the quarantine, was a moment of supreme peace and natural beauty. Walking across the Green with no one there let me take in the full picture of the grass, buildings and sky overhead (especially when it was laden with clouds). I haven’t been to Oxford since the lockdown began, but the thought of exploring those cobblestone streets and ancient architecture without worrying about bumping into or interacting with people is a joyful thought.

We tend to regard things in their so-called “natural state” with a certain amount of reverence and awe—hence all our attempts to leave nature preserves, landmarks and the like as untouched as possible. When it is our own creations, structures and features of our own making, this feeling persists, though it is mixed with the strange, almost scary feeling mentioned earlier. This isn’t any less natural; our buildings tend to be more use-based than, say, a cliff or waterfall. To have that use suddenly taken away from them, to see them without it, is naturally affecting.

And yet we see those outdoors things as art in their own right; they’ve certainly inspired it for countless years. Human architecture is not necessarily different; anyone who’s taken a look at a Gothic cathedral, or even the adobe structures of Mexico and the Southwest United States, can acknowledge that something equal to—if not better—than natural beauty can be found and produced by man.

Modern architecture gets a lot of flack for lacking this sort of grace; it seems to have fully embraced the use-oriented nature of our buildings and simplified everything else. But seeing it divorced from that use complicated the picture for me. There’s something in these places, from an empty gymnasium to an abandoned coffee shop. It’s only in the small details, sometimes, and even those can be hidden in the bustle of activity or in their less-noticed corners, but is there. It’s a sort of grace, an openness that allows for the natural environment, if given the chance, to surround, permeate, and become one with it. Inexplicably, in the absence of people, the style accused so much of being unnatural seems to be absorbed into the atmosphere of nature itself.

Different styles will have different effects, though. Medieval and classical buildings, for example, are less assimilated into the environment than they add to it, providing another element that enhances while still seeming to belong. Each kind, however, seems to in some way meld with or contribute to their environment. The connection between human affairs and nature is easily ignored nowadays, but this brings it back to the forefront in an unexpected way.

If safety and health (both present and future) permits, I can’t recommend enough taking the opportunity to spend a few minutes in a once-occupied building that has been left empty by the quarantine. It’s an opportunity to see another side of such places, to let them put on a different (and perhaps purer) face. The uncanny feeling and fear can, sometimes, be hard to overcome (especially all the wild, imagined threats the mind may come up with), but, as they say, “no pain, no gain.” The price of moving through this fear is a sort of literal and figurative enlightenment.

Author: Luke Fredette

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