Many people in the Western world feel confused about wearing a mask in public to protect themselves and others from coronavirus. In a civic sense, identification is paramount and connects individuals, their exterior appearance and their actions. In Asia, however, people are used to wearing masks. A matter of courtesy or culture? Urbanist Mark Kammerbauer reflects on the connection between an open society, openly accessible public spaces, the way human beings communicate with each other and being open-minded towards wearing a mask in public.
At this moment of crisis, one important question that concerns people across the globe is whether wearing medical face masks in public will become mandatory. The US is considering this measure to curb the distribution of Covid-19 since the awareness of how the virus can be spread seems to have sunk in. In Europe as well voices are becoming louder that call for wearing masks in public. This is relevant for two different reasons. For one, wearing a mask is not singularly intended to protect the wearer from surrounding people, but the opposite: to protect people around you in case you have been infected, thus preventing you from infecting others. Further, there seems to be a higher propensity towards wearing medical or similar face masks in public in Asia, perhaps so even before the Corona crisis occurred.
A matter of courtesy or culture? Let’s take a look at the situation in Asia. The custom of wearing medical face masks in public can possibly be retraced to various sources – the occurrence of other respiratory diseases and related public health emergencies in the past, the tradition of Cosplay where wearers refer to the idolized figures of Anime and Manga culture (such as Tokyo Ghoul or others), or the way urban space articulates itself in socio-cultural terms. Particularly the latter requires stepping back and considering what, if any, connection there is between the way buildings are articulated within the physical realm we understand as public space and if, in any case, this relates to the way people present themselves in that public space.
Semiotic elements of building facades communicate information to their human observers
It’s more or less a truism when we say that the facades of buildings are their “face”, as is the notion that buildings communicate something to those who look at them. By accepting that notion we have arrived within a postmodernist understanding of the city, its semiotic character, and the information that is communicated in the process. We do know, in the case of the historic European city, that extraverted building facades facing a shared, common, urban public space actually do communicate something to the people who pass by – think of the golden pretzels, shoes and piglets adorning the shops of related, individual trades. Such elements can only be observed in public if and because European cities feature openly accessible public spaces. From the perspective of urban studies, this also opens the possibility of comparing the way semiotic elements of building facades communicate information to their human observers with the way human beings communicate with one another. Following this notion, exposing one’s face in public is the precondition for recognizing the particular individual whose face we gaze upon. In a civic sense, identification is paramount and connects individuals, their exterior appearance and their actions as well as the fruit of their labor within what we call “practice”, or in simpler terms, “everyday life in the city.”
Asian cities: the concept of the closed neighborhood that is walled off towards the surrounding
However, this notion may not be simply applicable to each and every urban context, for instance those where the publicness of urban spaces takes on a different contextual character. When we look at cities in Asia and try to retrace their historic, socio-cultural origins, it helps to consult with experts in the field of the urban everyday life of Asian cities, or in particular, cities in China. Dieter Hassenpflug is such an expert, and his observations are clear. In the case of cities in China, we can identify introversion rather than extroversion, the concept of the closed neighborhood that is walled off towards the surrounding, and a nascent public space that has just recently been coded as such, emerging from what had been merely an open space without any civic intent comparable to historic European cities described above. This provides us with one possible explanation for why Asians might be more akin to wearing face masks in public – communication in public evolved under different spatial circumstances – whereas in those parts of the world informed by European and Anglo-Saxon socio-cultural modes of everyday life this might be hindered by reservations towards facial concealment.
Let’s not forget: the historic practice of walling off a city was not intended to protect the surrounding feudal hinterland from the city, but exactly the other way round. Perhaps we need other examples that are more suited to incentivize mask-wearing. Pop culture might be helpful, as indicated in the Asian case.
Masks produced by Bjarke Ingels Group: protection that allows recognition?
Innovation in design also offers solutions. Just recently, a mask was developed to ensure that the deaf can still communicate while someone is wearing it. The transparent area in front of the wearer’s mouth ensures lip reading can still take place. Just as recent is the proposal by the renowned architects from Bjarke Ingels Group. “We have adapted an open sourced design by Erik Cederberg of 3DVerkstan for a simplified face shield to be optimized for high volume print production. Whereas his file was for a single element we’ve successfully updated this to a stacked version that is able to print 50 units within 24 hour cycle per printer”, states Kai-Uwe Bergmann, Partner, BIG-Bjarke Ingels Group. Within one week, up to 5,000 masks can be produced in-house. Perhaps this is a solution to our global northern mask woes: protection that allows recognition.
Video Credits: Bjarke Ingels Group.
Collaborators: Dr. James Shin from Cornell University, Matthew Griffin from Ultimaker
Sponsors: Mara Hitner and Rhonda Grandy from MatterHackers
Team (BIG): Bernardo Schuhmacher, Carlos Castillo, Christian Salkeld