Covid-19 has shaken up all that we were used to, and although it doesn’t make our experience any easier, pandemics are not a new phenomenon. As Dr. Nicholas Christakis describes, “plagues are not new to our species – they’re just new to us.” Plagues are recorded as far back as late Antiquity, but a more recent one that bears the most resemblance to our current situation is the 1918 influenza epidemic, better known (though misnamed) as the Spanish Flu.
Classed as the most severe pandemic in recent times, infecting an estimated one third of the world’s population, the Spanish Flu had much in common with the one we are experiencing now.
After great suffering, alongside the devastation caused by the First World War, followed the ‘Roaring 20s’, a period that ‘gave way to a decade that would be named for its economic abandon and social revolution.’ Drawing on what we know from this period, can we predict that we might see something similar when the COVID-19 pandemic finally ceases to be part of our daily existence?
After nearly a year of Covid-19, with many countries going in and out of lockdowns, people are bound to feel like they have missed out many of the things people usually do recreationally. They therefore will, the thinking goes, want to live and experience life to the full just like they did in 1920s.
If we look at the built environment, this was a very dynamic decade for architecture and design movements such as Art Deco. The movement encapsulated the feeling of the decade with its designs that exuded luxury and extravagance, combined with an admiration for incoming global industrialisation and the inherent design qualities of man-made objects with their simple, sleek designs. In the USA, some of the country’s iconic skyscrapers embodied the style with its clean lines and geometric patterns including the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, and the Rockefeller Center. In the UK, we can see inspiration taken from the period in some prominent buildings such as Central London’s Daily Express Building, Ealing’s Hoover Building and Senate House in Bloomsbury. BW for its part has been involved in fit outs in some of the elegant buildings of the Art Deco period such as the Adelphi Building in London’s theatre district, as well as 100 Embankment, which was originally built in a Neoclassical Art Deco style slightly later, in the 1930s. We can be hopeful that when we can finally get back to being out and about, this will inspire creative endeavours in the built environment again just as it did in the 1920s, driving forward such new and innovative styles of design.
Similarly, people will want to go to music venues again and we could see a similar rising up of new music, like the 1920s where we got this incredible explosion of music, known as the Jazz Age. After nearly a year of the music industry suffering with clubs having not opened their doors since before the pandemic, and festivals and live music events with large crowds currently a thing of the past, fans as well as musicians may feel that there is a need to make up for lost time. This could make way for an abundance of new music and combined with the return of much-missed events, this will give people something to look forward to when the pandemic is over.
The Spanish Flu, alongside the First World War also inspired other creatives, notably in literature. These included F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein and Virginia Woolf. One could also argue that the death of Roald Dahl’s father from pneumonia in 1920 inspired his work, with most of his children’s stories being centred around orphaned children who go on crazy adventures.
Will this period of social and cultural prosperity continue for the whole decade? Only time will tell. The pandemic has been a difficult time for many and most have never experienced anything like it. When life returns to some form of normal, people will relish the opportunities to reconnect with each other and the world we have all missed. If the past is anything to go by, we can hope for a time like the Roaring 20s after the Covid-19 pandemic. However, the Roaring 20s were followed by the Great Depression, so while it is great to be optimistic, we should be realistic and sensible, holding ourselves grounded that things can always change. Certainly though when the world opens up again, there will be the opportunity for an explosion of creativity, whether it’s with the built environment and its ever-innovating projects, the music we listen to that that continues to make us smile, or the books we read that continue to inspire us.