Design Challenge of the Day: What Should Quarantine Look Like?

In the wake of swine flu and body scans, designers reimagine isolation.

Four years ago Paola Antonelli curated a collection of emergency shelters, gas masks, and security bollards for a MoMA exhibition called “Safe: Design Takes On Risk.” The show demonstrated how thoroughly 9/11 had galvanized the design field. Since then, our collective fear has shifted from terrorism to biology: Our nightmares now center on ebola, swine flu, and pandemic panic. So long Bin Laden. Hello hot zone.

Quarantine Marker

On Tuesday, a diverse group of creative professionals–an illustrator, a sound designer, a set designer, a game designer, and architects, among others–met for the first of eight weekly sessions during which they will each develop a design for quarantine, the safe house of our bio-terror era. The results will be shown in March at Storefront for Art and Architecture, a gallery on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

Quarantine is an ancient practice, according to the project brief, “yet it has re-emerged as an issue of urgent biological, political, and even architectural importance in our era of global trade, bio-engineering, and mass tourism.”

body scan

The project, called Landscapes of Quarantine, is organized by Geoff Manaugh of BLDGBLOG and his wife, Nicola Twilley, of Edible Geography. “The subject came to our attention because of the news of body scans at border crossings and tourists quarantined in China,” Twilley said.

The Last Town on Earth


The project has an open source aspect, with readers invited to submit their own designs online. To encourage participation, Manaugh and Twilley will post their research as they go, including interviews with a biosafety consultant, the head of the American Public Health Organization, the plant health and quarantine officer at the Royal Botanic Gardens, and Thomas Mullen, author of The Last Town on Earth, an historical novel set in a quarantined village during the 1918 flu outbreak.

apollo 11

Apollo 11

The quarantine tanks with the most prominent place in the public imagination are surely the handful of modified airstream trailers used by NASA to isolate astronauts after the Apollo missions. An iconic photo of that era shows President Nixon chatting with the Apollo 11 crew aboard the U.S. Hornet after the first moon landing. Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Buzz Aldrin cluster around the small trailer window, smiling at Nixon standing somewhat awkwardly outside. What became of those trailers? The one used to quarantine Apollo 12 was recently found at a fish farm in Marion, Alabama. “It’s like finding a Rembrandt in a yard sale,” said Al Whitaker, a NASA spokesman. “There aren’t going to be any more of these.”