‘BORDERSPACE’, INTERDEPENDENCY AND VULNERABILITY
Two Wuhan hospitals built in the COVID-19 pandemic
Vulnerable Wuhan. Author’s own illustration, 2020.
Lunar New Year is the grandest festival in China with exuberant celebrations across the whole country. However, during the Chinese New Year of 2020, China was seriously stricken by the COVID-19 pandemic. The megacity Wuhan, where COVID-19 first emerged, introduced a lockdown from the 23rd of January of the same year. To alleviate the shortage of hospital beds, existing structures were converted to sixteen field hospitals to treat patients with mild symptoms. More importantly, two hospitals were built in the suburban area of Wuhan to treat critically ill patients. The first one, Huoshenshan Hospital was built in just ten days and was put into service on the 2nd of February. The other, Leishenshan Hospital was open on the 6th of February to receive patients after twelve days of construction. Both the two hospitals were closed in mid-April but they are yet to be demolished.
The two Wuhan hospitals attracted both domestic and international interest and significantly contributed to containing the coronavirus. However, information about their construction and use is still being published, and in China this is limited by the language. Most primary sources of the hospitals can only be found on Chinese websites and social media applications, and English sources are insufficient. Consequently, this dissertation aims to examine primary Chinese sources in order to show the short history of the hospitals and it draws from two key elements, air and space, based on the architectural and medical requirements for containing the virus. According to World Health Organization (WHO), COVID-19 is mainly transmitted between people via droplets and contact routes, and some microbes within droplet nuclei can remain in the air and cause airborne transmission. As a result, many countries announced the implementation of social distancing, and in medical facilities the arrangement of space and air flow became essential.
This dissertation first considers the scientific and spatial rationale behind the hospitals’ design: how the space and air were organized architecturally and how medical treatment was carried out with the two elements. Second, I bring to light the issue of vulnerability which was found during my investigation of online media, including social media posts, Weibo feeds, personal videos and documentaries. Audio-visual media has played an important role in updating the situation of the ongoing pandemic especially when many cities were in lockdown and people were self-isolated. In addition, this dissertation mainly relies on online media due to the difficulty of site visits. Nevertheless, huge gaps in the personnel’s working and living conditions were sometimes found between official news reports and personal dissemination: for example, content which is intended as political propaganda may ignore what was really happening to individuals and how the hospital functioned. Threads of exploitation of workers can be found in some videos, and it is widely circulated that medical professionals were working under immense pressure and construction workers worked overtime without being paid on time. Not only patients were experiencing vulnerability, but other professionals also needed to be safeguarded.
Following the main concerns above, this dissertation is guided by two research questions. First, what are the relations between virus, air and space in terms of both the corporeal and architectural spheres? Second, how to define the new vulnerability of personnel on-site in that viral space? By answering these questions, I construct an architectural history involving architecture, nature and humans during this unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic.
My theoretical support consists of three texts: Katie Lloyd Thomas’s chapter ‘Between the womb and the world: Building matrixial relations in the NICU’ (2013), Judith Butler’s chapter ‘Rethinking Vulnerability and Resistance’ (2016) and her journal article, ‘Precarious Life, Vulnerability and Ethics of Cohabitation’ (2012). In my first chapter, I focus on the architectural design of Huoshenshan Hospital and explain how space was organized and how air was controlled to treat patients and to avoid spread of the virus. The notion of ‘borderspace’ from Bracha Ettinger, used by Lloyd Thomas to describe the prenatal relationship in the NICU, is applied to a larger architectural scale in order to explain the rationale of separation and intervention at the same time. In the second chapter, I explore how the virus and air affected medical treatment and the relations between different actors and medical support. Butler’s term ‘infrastructure’ helps to lay the foundation of relationality. Her notion of ‘boundaries’ and Simondon’s terms, ‘process’ and ‘system’ (from Lloyd Thomas’s text) are also applied to analyze the complicated relations between patients, medical professionals and medical infrastructure. The last chapter covers the issue of vulnerability and ethics of responsibility during the construction and service stages. In order to reveal the gap between official dissemination and personal experience, a comparison is drawn between Chinese official documentaries and individual disseminations, including social media content posted by a patient and a designer of Huoshenshan Hospital and one independently made documentary by a Japanese director. A conversation with a Chinese dentist is also used for understanding ethical responsibility in Chinese medical context. As for theoretical support, Butler’s critical discussion on ‘recepetivity’, ‘responsiveness’ and ‘media’s ethical solicitation’ is applied in the Chinese context.
In addition to the online materials, my analysis is also based on my own experience as a Chinese national and offered a way to explore how to bring together the Chinese events and Western methodologies to gain a new perspective to understand the Wuhan hospitals. This dissertation brings the establishment of a new record in building makeshift hospitals into question, offering its diverse audience more dimensions to consider the pandemic and humans’ relationship with nature through architecture.
 China News Service, ‘China’s Fight With COVID-19’, published 2 April 2020, video, 5:44, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MMm27Mj12x8. [Accessed 8 July 2020]
 World Health Organization, ‘Modes of Transmission of Virus Causing COVID-19: Implications for IPC Precaution Recommendations’, [accessed 13 June 2020], https://www.who.int/news-room/commentaries/detail/modes-of-transmission-of-virus-causing-covid-19-implicat ions-for-ipc-precaution-recommendations.
 Weibo is one of the most popular social media sites in China
 Katie Lloyd Thomas, "Between the Womb and the World: Building Matrixial Relations in the NICU", in Relational Architectural Ecologies, ed. Peg Rawes (London: Routledge, 2013).
 Judith Butler, "Rethinking Vulnerability and Resistance", in Vulnerability In Resistance, ed. Butler Judith, Zeynep Gambetti, and Leticia Sabsay (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016), 12–27, https://doi.org/10.1215/9780822373490.
 Judith Butler, ‘Precarious Life, Vulnerability, and the Ethics of Cohabitation’, The Journal of Speculative Philosophy 26, no. 2 (2012). 134–51, https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5325/jspecphil.26.2.0134.
Copyright of image: © Yuan Xue