How Modern, Minimalist Design (And Washing Your Hands) Can Fight Disease

The modern movement started as a way of dealing with tuberculosis. The same rules apply today.

a sink in the hall?
A sink in the hall?.

Lloyd Alter 

Everywhere in Asia now (this photo is a railway station in Seoul) they are disinfecting everything in the hopes that it will control the new coronavirus. In the New York Times, Elisabeth Rosenthal describes how she and her family got through the SARS epidemic, which happened while she was covering China. Her children were in school at the time, where they followed simple precautionary policies:

There was no sharing of food at lunch. The teacher led the kids in frequent hand washing throughout the day at classroom sinks, while singing a prolonged “hand washing song” to ensure they did more than a cursory pass under the faucet with water only....With those precautions in place, I observed something of a public health miracle: Not only did no child get SARS, but it seemed no student was sick with anything at all for months on end. No stomach bugs. No common colds. Attendance was more or less perfect.

The people cleaning all the handrails are generally using alcohol or bleach here, the same tools that were available a hundred years ago when the flu and tuberculosis were the problems. Doctors and health officials knew what caused TB, but didn't have the antibiotics capable of killing it. Instead, they fought disease with cleanliness and urban planning; as Professor Dame Sally Davies wrote:

Almost without exception, the decline in deaths from the biggest killers at the beginning of the twentieth century predates the introduction of antimicrobial drugs for civilian use at the end of the Second World War. Just over half the decline in infections diseases had occurred before 1931. The main influences on the decline of mortality were better nutrition, improved hygiene and sanitation, and less dense housing which all helped to prevent and to reduce transmission of infectious diseases.

Zonnestraal, the model of a healthy building/Public Domain

It also changed design, furniture, and the way we live; it is what gave us modernism. I wrote earlier:

It is clear that the source of our obsessions with hospital-like bathrooms and spotless kitchens, as well as the continuing interest in minimalist interior design, descends directly from the modernist obsessions with hygienic design that formed in the years before antibiotics.

A few years ago I wrote a series of posts about how we might have to do this all over again in the age after antibiotics, as resistance to the drugs increases. Many of the same things apply to the coronavirus: keep things clean, wash your hands, and leave those viruses no place to hide.

Antibiotic Resistance Will Change the Way We Live

Villa Savoye sink

Sink in the lobby, Villa Savoye/via

When writing about bathrooms in an earlier post, I suggested that Le Corbusier put a sink in the front hall of the Villa Savoye as an historical allusion. In fact, there is a much simpler and more straightforward reason: His client, like the clients for the Maison de Verre and the Lovell Health House, was a doctor and was obsessed about germs. People had known about germ theory since 1882, when Robert Koch identified that tuberculosis was caused by a bacillus, but they didn’t have antibiotics until after World War II.

They were obsessed about germs, a fear that went away when antibiotics were discovered. We are much more blasé today, often taking the approach that we should be exposed to more germs to build up defenses. But this may change.

Those sinks really work:

A third of cases of gastrointestinal illness could be prevented through observing basic hand hygiene... Food poisoning – most of it caused by faecal bacteria from unwashed hands – costs the UK economy nearly £1.5bn a year.

Fighting Disease with Design: Light, Air, and Openness

©. Maison Ozenfant/ Le Corbusier

© Maison Ozenfant/ Le Corbusier

Where did minimalism come from? A fear of bugs.

Dirt and dust harboured germs that must be destroyed by fresh air and sunlight. Homes should be cleaned thoroughly every day and windows and doors opened each morning to let in the sun and air, to destroy the germs. Heavy drapes and curtains, thick carpets and old furniture with decorative features that harboured dust and microbes should be thrown out and replaced with simple, easily cleaned modern furniture and light, easily washed curtains.

Fighting Disease with Design: The Maison de Verre

maison de verre

Kelly Rossiter/CC BY 2.0

There is a lot to learn from these great modernist houses that might well be useful in the near future.

It is clear that the source of our obsessions with hospital-like bathrooms and spotless kitchens, as well as the continuing interest in minimalist interior design, descends directly from the modernist obsessions with hygienic design that formed in the years before antibiotics, and that we can learn from to help cope in the years after antibiotics are gone.

Why We Got Separate Instead of Open Kitchens: It Was Thought to be a "Clean Machine"

credit: Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky's Frankfurt Kitchen 1926

Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky's Frankfurt Kitchen 1926/CC BY 2.0

The iconic Frankfurt Kitchen was designed actually to separate the process of cooking from the rest of family life, to be too small to eat in. How different this is from how people think today:

Our apartment kitchens are arranged in a way which completely separates kitchen work from the living area, therefore eliminating the unpleasant effects produced by smell, vapours and above all the psychological effects of seeing leftovers, plates, bowls, washing-up clothes and other items lying around.

Why do our Cars Have Better Air Quality than Our Homes?


Consumer product safety commision/Public Domain

Elon Musk's ventilation system in his car is a whole lot better than most of us have in our houses, and we should learn from him.

Inspired by the air filtration systems used in hospitals, clean rooms, and the space industry, we developed a HEPA filtration system capable of stripping the outside air of pollen, bacteria, and pollution before they enter the cabin and systematically scrubbing the air inside the cabin to eliminate any trace of these particles.

Ten Things to Do to Have a Healthy Home

©. Lestoil/ how to dress for safe cleaning.

© Lestoil/ how to dress for safe cleaning.

Now we start getting serious about the things we should actually do to make our homes healthier. I start with what we can do right now in our existing homes, everything from the cleaners and stuff we bring into our homes, to simply taking off our shoes.

How to Build a Healthy Home; Extreme Dream Edition

©. Juri Troy Architects

© Juri Troy Architects

The latest post in the series is perhaps the most controversial. Readers disagreed with me about building on stilts, closing off the kitchen, building out of wood, building a detached house in the first place. Or even just dreaming about the perfect house instead of providing anything practical or real. But that wasn't the point, really. There will be more practical examples to come in this series, including multifamily versions.

This was an attempt to put together all the ideas, everything I had been talking about so far.