Architectural historian Beatriz Colomina, who is based at Princeton University, has been researching the dramatic increase in the use of the bed as a place of work in the last decade. The COVID-19 pandemic, she writes, has further fuelled this development. The symbol of intimacy is transforming into a piece of public furniture – and thus influences our relationship to conventional public space.Already in 2012, The Wall Street Journal reported that 80 per cent of young New York City professionals work regularly from bed. Millions of dispersed beds were taking over from concentrated office buildings, while networked electronic technologies have removed any limit to what can be done in bed. It is not just that the bed/office has been made possible by new media. Rather, new media is designed to extend a hundred-year-old dream of domestic connectivity to millions of people. The city has moved into the bed. Industrialization brought with it the eight-hour shift and the radical separation between the home and office/factory, rest and work, night and day. Post-industrialization collapses work back into the home and takes it further into the bedroom and into the bed itself.This philosophy was already embodied in the figure of Hugh Hefner, who famously almost never left his bed, let alone his house. He literally moved his office to his bed in 1960 when he moved into the Playboy Mansion at 1340 North State Parkway, Chicago, turning it into the epicenter of a global empire and his silk pajamas and dressing gown into his business attire.“I don’t go out of the house at all! I am a contemporary recluse”, he told Tom Wolfe, guessing that the last time he was out had been three and a half months before and that in the last two years, he had been out of the house only nine times. Playboy turned the bed into a workplace. From the mid-1950s on, the bed became increasingly sophisticated, outfitted with all sorts of entertainment and communication devices as a kind of control room. The magazine devoted many articles to the design of the perfect bed. Hefner acted as the model with his famous round bed in the Playboy Mansion.
Fast-forward to 2020 and beds are all over the media for very different reasons. They are the face of the viral catastrophe that has unfolded across the world since late 2019. In New York, where I live, beds, that piece of equipment usually hidden from view, are suddenly everywhere. First it was the urgent call for more hospital beds, then beds overflowing hospitals, filling corridors and former waiting rooms. Any room of any size became a room for beds. The whole space of the hospital was taken over. The beds started to make new spaces, in tents, gymnasia, parks, ships, convention centers. Haunting images of cavernous spaces with hundreds of empty beds in a grid – each with an oxygen tank and a domestic lamp – waiting beds. The question dominating the media was always; “how many beds?”; “how many are occupied?”; “how many people survived the bed?” Any bed with a ventilator became an ICU bed, so the bed became the room, the architecture. Even beds in the street, transporting the sick, are like portable rooms, some encased in a plastic bubble, reminiscent of 1960s sci-fi architecture. Beds on the move became a common and frightening sight in the streets and in the media, with medical professionals completely wrapped in protective gear, like terrestrial astronauts, complete with oxygen tanks. These portable beds act as the link between the domestic bed and the hospital bed—a vast ecology of beds, then, a whole landscape.
These beds are not just in the media as the real façade of this new city, but they are also media platforms, zooming, broadcasting, face timing. Bed-to-bed communication. Think of all of those whose last contact was on a phone held by a nurse. Think of all of those connecting with friends and colleagues from bed. Think of all the beds you see in the background of work meetings, socializing, comedy shows, at-home music concerts, etc. No bed is a secret anymore. This new architecture of the pervasive bed is not a side effect of the pandemic but is exposed by it. And once exposed, it might mutate again.The bed was already on its way to become a new kind of office. The virus has taken this to a whole new level. And is there any reason to think that we will leave the bed when all of this is over, now that we have become so much better at working in bed, teaching in bed, shopping in bed, socializing with people miles away from our beds? The bed used to be the site of intimate physical contact. Now we will only get out into the street in search of such contact.
Since February 1, 2019, Beatriz Colomina is Howard Crosby Butler Professor of the History of Architecture at Princeton University. The professorship is dedicated to the memory of Howard Crosby Butler (1872-1922), Class of 1892, Professor of Art and Archaeology, 1905-1919 and of the History of Architecture, 1919-1922. Colomina’s latest book on the relationship between illness and modern architecture is X-Ray Architecture (Zurich: Lars Muller, 2019).