A chef and an architect come up with safe ideas to meet new demands 

SINGAPORE (June 26): French superchef Alain Ducasse is using a ventilation system similar to those in hospital operating theatres to reopen one of his Paris restaurants. Ducasse, whose restaurants have 17 Michelin stars — the most of any chef in the world — is installing the sophisticated system in his historic Allard bistro in the chic Saint Germain des Pres district of the French capital so it can open later this month.

French restaurants have been allowed to serve on their terraces for 10 days but strict social-distancing rules mean the interiors remain off limits. Diners in Paris bistros and cafes traditionally sit almost elbow-to-elbow on small tables — a nightmare for restaurateurs who have been told tables must now be at least one metre a part.

“No restaurant can survive with only half of its customers,” Ducasse told AFP as he unveiled his air filtration system at the Allard, whose tables will also be screened off with sail cloth blinds. Large white air “socks” decorated with drawings of the gods and goddesses of the wind hang over every table from the overhead ventilation pipes, gently pushing stale air away.

And customers will also be offered round transparent “separators” to be placed on their table for additional safety as French restaurants begin to open. Ducasse said his prototype will “give extra safety to customers in confined spaces” and was a possible solution for tightly packed bistros which could lose half their tables if distancing rules are rigidly applied.

Designer Patrick Jouin, whose work is displayed at MOMA in New York as well as the Paris Pompidou Centre, said he talked to scientists and virologists before coming up with the air system.

Appropriate modernity

He said its efficiency was comparable to those used in hospital operating theatres and intensive care units. Jouin said he contacted Ducasse in April to try and square the circle of social distancing, which he knew could be disastrous for restaurants in the long term. The designer said that his extraction and filtration system means the safe distance between people can be reduced from 1m to 32cm. Ducasse insisted the system does not spoil the atmosphere of the 1930s institution, with its red velvet banquettes and period wallpaper.

“We have preserved the spirit of the place,” he told AFP. “I love the idea of the just and appropriate modernity we have put into the DNA of this 1930s restaurant. “Even if Covid-19 disappears, I will keep this design,” Ducasse vowed. The chef said he wanted to “show that it was possible to do things differently and not just to passively accept (the constraints imposed by the virus), but to actively work with them.” Jouin said normal restaurant air conditioning systems work very fast, which ironically can actually help concentrate the viral charge.

So he had to come up with a way of reducing the speed while “changing more of the air”. “We take the air from the outside and pass it through a filter which makes it absolutely clean. Into that we inject slightly cooled pure air above each table at a very low speed.” Jouin refused to say how much the system cost but insisted it was not expensive. “Restaurants will be able to afford it,” he said. 

Japan architect Ban urges virus-safe shelters

Japan’s Pritzker Award-winning architect Shigeru Ban, famous for designing buildings from paper tubes in disaster areas, says the world needs to think about tackling natural catastrophes in the coronavirus era. And while he hopes the pandemic will lead to less of a crush on Tokyo’s packed commuter trains, he warns against relying on teleworking, stressing that hands-on contact with materials is vital for great architecture.

Speaking to AFP from his Tokyo office, the 62-yearold said cities need to start planning now to mitigate the nightmare scenario of an earthquake or typhoon striking before the pandemic has run its course. Ban has won plaudits for his involvement in disaster relief projects around the world and urged city authorities to invest in a stock of shelters that can be deployed quickly with infection prevention in mind. “Shelters will create clusters of people. It will be too late if it takes a few days (to build them),” he stressed.

His team has designed shelters partitioned off by a frame of sturdy paper tubes with cloth hanging 2m from the top of the cubicle to the floor. Social distancing would become practically impossible in the event of a major earthquake and officials need to make plans to ease the density in shelters, argued the Japanese architect. The central government and local authorities have been so tied up dealing with the pandemic that it’s “only recently that people started talking about what to do in the wake of earthquakes.” “I know it’s not easy but I think we have to think about it,” he said.

3D pictures

In March, Ban was on his way to the airport for a flight to Paris but made a sharp U-turn when he heard the French capital was about to be locked down at the height of the coronavirus pandemic. Since then, he has thrown himself into his work, walking five minutes to his Tokyo office seven days a week. “It’s been probably the first time in some 16 years that I’ve stayed in Japan for more than a month. I’ve been very much moved by the beauty of spring in Japan,” he said.

“I don’t do anything but work. I have no hobbies and I’m not doing anything special because we are in this situation,” he told AFP. Ban has travelled all over the world for his architecture — including building the Cardboard Cathedral for Christchurch in New Zealand after the 2011 earthquake — but he fears the coronavirus could encourage Japanese students to stay put. “What worries me most is that students may become intimidated. Even before the coronavirus woes, fewer and fewer students wanted to study abroad as Japan is safe and peaceful,” he said.

Despite an ageing population and some of the most densely packed cities on Earth, Japan has been relatively spared by the pandemic, with fewer than 900 dead and around 17,000 cases. And while the virus offers a “great chance” to reduce the crowding on crammed public transport, Ban said: “This doesn’t mean we don’t have to go out.” “It’s dangerous to try to solve everything with technology. It’s wrong to believe we don’t have to meet up in person because we can video-conference,” he said.

He added that close contact with materials was still the key to great architecture, which technology could not replace. “Drawing parts or 3D pictures with computers is totally different from building models or creating things by actually touching and feeling the weight of materials,” he said. “This is true no matter how much technology develops.”