what it means to dwell, living in a time of crisis

a collaborative narrative
/ text by John Bajada
& artwork by Anna Calleja

the long road home

As the public realm becomes increasingly unsettling, with the continued circulation of images and headlines which seem to be torn out of a lost Black Mirror episode, we must retreat into the safety of our homes. While we have always somewhat been prisoners of architecture, confining ourselves into different capsules1, we have never really lived quite like this. The envelope of architecture now creates a safe haven from a hostile exterior, as the four walls that surround separate you from them, the inside from the outside, safety from potential danger.

The home is not only a place to shelter, but becomes something to own – an accumulation of wealth transformed into a space that is yours. The locus of privacy and comfort, the dwelling is a form of second skin, providing you with a degree of ownership and spatial agency within your surroundings, and, in this scenario, fully defining where you can move freely. The boundary of what is yours and theirs has never seemed more pertinent, as the in-betweenness of these spaces becomes fraught.

However, for many people, the ideal dream of ownership is increasingly becoming a far-cry from their reality. As the housing landscape transformed into a commercially viable investment, housing prices exploded, leaving many people behind. The transformation of houses and land into real estate – maximizing their output through the creation of smaller and smaller apartments to rent, or converting them into Airbnb’s (the sharing economy2) focusing on foreigners over locals – has been a major cause of this spike. Forcing extraordinarily high rents or selling prices has left many unable to enter this market, living in substandard housing or even homeless. In a time when the home truly becomes the centre of our reality, a fixed point to hold onto in unstable times, the housing crisis is more pressing than ever. 

Living in this real-estate world, the guiding principle has always been the maximization of space, squeezing in as much as possible into the area available, many times disregarding quality completely. From post-war architecture and the Homes for Today and Tomorrow3, to the densification of cities and the building booms – the search for the “minimum dwelling”4 – the least space needed to exist and feel comfortable – has been underway and constantly altered. Due to the denser environments, increasing population, lack of space and the hiking up of prices, this so-called “existence minimum” has become smaller, outsourcing most of our domestic routines to the public sphere. With the public realm all but unusable, this minimum might not be entirely sufficient. In turn, for many people, their home becomes the least desirable place in which to be barricaded. 

At this point, the shortcomings of the home are made more apparent. The walls that we have worked so hard to remove, the open plan living sought after by so many, is strained by a cacophony of voices, all on various calls, rendering the space unusable. The floor to ceiling glazing, attempting to connect you to a view, lets in so much heat that work inevitably slows to a crawl. The terraces and balconies have been engulfed into the internal footprint, marginally increasing the sellable floor area, leaving us without a space to venture outside. Initially full of good intentions, these remnants of modernism were ways to move away from the dark and crammed interiors into lighter, cleaner ways of living, however they have not lived up to their utopian ideals. The “machine for living in”5 is slowly malfunctioning. These spaces were not meant for us to dwell in, to inhabit, but are thin spaces of only surface interaction. The white walls, glazing and openness that defined a new architecture have all been codified into aspects of the modern home, maximizing real-estate value. 

As apartments, communal living and shared spaces become the norm, for most people, the bourgeois notion of the solitary home is a long lost dream. While there is no easy escape into our usual routines of cafes, shops and bars, the escape that the external spaces of most homes used to provide is also gone. In this way, we are forced to always dwell publicly, sharing every inch of space beyond the remit of our apartment walls. While most new developments try to market notions of community living and shared open space6, these are generally inadequate afterthoughts or non-existent. When the roof is privatized into a penthouse and pool, when the yard feels more like a glorified shaft, with every window imaginable peering down at you, there are no areas for you to be left alone outside – leaving the desire to escape unfulfilled. 

Within our own walls, the minutiae of everyday life regains a spatial importance in our sense of being. The intimate spaces between people are tested – families argue, flatmates drive each other up the wall, marriages and relationships dissolve or are brought together – as we relearn to share space for prolonged periods of time. Much like the public realm, programs and the roles of our spaces are altering, being redrawn in a time of crisis. Areas such as the kitchen become contested – cleaned thoroughly due to the risk of infection, staggering the times they are used so as not to share the same space at the same time, it no longer remains the ‘heart’ of the home. For most times you are confined to your bedroom – the minimum dwelling par excellence; the microcosm of the wider home. Overnight many of them have turned into home offices, and in an instance, the future that has been discussed and theorized for years7, now becomes a reality for many as the divides between work and leisure vanish entirely. With our capsules fully connected to the network, our most private dwellings are put on display. Colleagues and clients, generally kept at arm’s length, are there with you, within that space. Not even the end of day marks a clear threshold, as the boundaries between days blur, as days of the week melt into endless mondays, workdays stretch further into the weekend. While smaller events did unfold – people’s hair grew out, plants flourished, children were born – we still feel stuck in the same endless moment, unable to perceive beyond the immediate, as space and time combine into a strange place. 

Through this, the home has fully become a world unto itself – a place where all activity happens in the same space, with the same people. Our existence minimum becomes a place where one must socialize, work, relax, a place that becomes absolutely private, yet gains a public face. Meyer’s vision of the New World8 has now been fully realized.

the spaces between strangers

After being locked within those four walls for months, the capsule pushed to the limits, unable to satisfy every aspect of life, you are forced outside into the treacherous world.

Suddenly you realize where you are. With motion limited to more immediate surroundings, you are forced to contend with what you have – the specificity of where you dwell. People became modern flâneurs9 as walking once again found a resurgence as the main way of existing out in public, without partaking in commercial activities. Feeling the space around you – the distances between places, the lack of shade in many areas, or the permanent shading in others, the narrowness of the pavements where maintaining the two metre distance becomes all but impossible, crowding everyone into an uncomfortable proximity. 

As means of escape, people flocked to the few patches of natural land left, strolling off the beaten paths in attempts to transform the familiar areas that have been visited countless times, into something new. Photos of sunsets, empty fields and overgrown gardens flooded social media more than usual, as the arcadian desire to be amongst nature grew stronger. These moments, seemingly insignificant and ephemeral, ground you in the specificity of place and time. When time lies suspended, the perpetual changes of the natural world outside us seem to provide some comfort. 

Outside of these utopian worlds, you wonder what else there is to do. When our urban spaces have been geared for consumption, privatized into thin, mundane sites of transit, where do you go? When bars, restaurants, shops are all closed, what is left but an empty shell? When the kiosk and cafes provide the only source of shade and seating, eroding the pavements and public spaces as they transition to outdoor establishments, braving the pandemic, where is there left to go? Is this really the best our public spaces have to offer?

There is a strangeness to these places. The high density that every establishment has worked so hard to achieve suddenly does not pay as much as it used to, as covers are halved, with many places seemingly going out of business. In order to combat this, especially during the hot summer months, many of these restaurants and bars have claimed even more public space, making up for their lack of usable interior space by utilizing the public’s. While this problem has been contested for many years10, narrowing the public passageways to a now dangerously designated 1.5 metres, our desire to be out within these spaces has trumped the desire for truly public spaces.

New thresholds between the public and the private entities have been drawn up – officialized in the signs that read “use of masks beyond this point”, bottles of sanitizer, or the bright line of tape demarcating here from there. Ad-hoc spatial solutions that create a new infrastructure of hygiene imposed onto the existing architecture designate the acceptable distances between us. Within these capsules one is safe, with tape and masks standing in for the safety of the walls of our dwellings, however existing in-between these spaces has become all but impossible.

The crossing of these boundaries is traced, as your trajectory through these spaces is mapped by your name, phone number and time stamps of when you were there. Movement through the city has become overridden by where you have been in relation to outbreaks, clusters and near misses. The potential encounters with strangers, that are an integral part of the urban environment, are now destabilized, gaining new meaning, importance and risk within the urban narrative. As the number of active cases increases, and the R factor represents the potential danger, a sense of abstraction of others occurs. The person walking past you does not just remain a person, but is transformed into a risk, giving off a sense of unease as we turn our faces the other way, careful not to breathe within the bubble of air that surrounds the stranger. Yet, how easily this unease and boundary is broken down once a familiar face walks by, shaking hands and hugging as if nothing has changed. In this way, the difference between the stranger and familiar introduces a new threshold, a perceived sense of safety. In these moments, one realizes the importance of the insignificant moments that occur when existing with others, and our desires to be in contact with them. We long again for a time when brushing up against people was not a threat, or the little greetings and smiles were not hidden under masks. As things move online to avoid contact as much as possible, you realize their importance, and what it really means to exist with others here and now.

our changing boundaries

In such a time of crisis, the boundaries all around us are being shifted – from a micro scale and the space between two people, to country-wide borders being closed and opened at a moments notice. Once these boundaries are drawn up and marked out, we begin to see place as being defined by them, defining here from there. Borders generally seen as fixed and immovable are being transformed on an almost daily basis – from the dream of the borderless European Union, now discouraging free movement, to the acceptable distances between us being defined by some authority – 2 metres, 5 floor tiles, 3 steps, 1 table – all working to separate and recreate what surrounds us.

Forcing us to reconsider our existence within those boundaries, the notion of escaping, of getting away is being rethought too. As the crossing of major thresholds becomes dangerous – risking infection or two weeks quarantine – the short getaway and borderless world seems like a utopian dream. Through this, we are forced to re-explore our own backyards, the smaller, local escapes, as we wander around the overly familiar; there is always more to see in the specificity of place. 

The conditions experienced during lockdown have been compared to those experienced by Antarctic scientists or astronauts – a total disruption of the norms of our daily lives as we are confined to small groups of people, and even smaller spaces. Such a shift and strain on a humankind forces us to rethink what is around us, as we begin to understand what it means to dwell again – to live within four walls, as we create our own private worlds, to be in the world, alone and distanced from others, and the desire to be brought in contact with them again. We understand the strains of social life, how they are territorialized and dependent on the frailty of capitalistic whims, as they happen exclusively within the realms of cafes, shops and restaurants.  

Architecture and city planning is always slow to react to any change, but who knows how it will react to this, to what it means to dwell in a post-Covid world, as we rethink our existence minimum, what is really needed, and what is important to live; in this time and in this place.

Anna Calleja is a Maltese multi-disciplinary artist working in paint, print, and sculpture. Calleja has exhibited in Malta and abroad, at the Wignacourt Museum in Malta and at Tate St.Ives, Porthmeor Studios, and at the Mall Galleries in London.  In 2020, her painting, “Alone in Quarantine” was awarded a Winsor and Newton Young Artist Award at the Royal Institute of Oil Painters Annual Exhibition. Her solo exhibition H O M E B O U N D is on at Malta Society of Arts, Palazzo De La Salle, Valletta, Malta, from 4th – 25th March 2021.

John Bajada is a practicing architect at Box Concept Studio, with an interest in exploring narrative, cultural production and the intersections between architecture, film and literature.


  1. The Capsule and the Network, DeCauter, L.
  2. Sharing Economy and the Transforming Landscapes of Ownership, Petkova, I.
  3. Homes for Today and Tomorrow, Morris, P.
  4. The Minimum Dwelling, Teige, K. 
  5. Toward and Architecture, Le Corbusier
  6. Manufacturing Solitude, Smirnova, A.
  7. Future Shock, Toffler, A.
  8. The New World, Meyer, H.
  9. Arcades Project, Benjamin W.
    The Practice of Everyday Life, De Certeau, M.
  10. Unlicensed Tables and Chairs Taking Over Public Space, Martin, I.
    Policy, Guidance and Standards for Outdoor Catering Areas on Public Open Spaces – Public Consultation Document


Species of Spaces and Other Pieces, Perec, G.
Being and Time, Heidegger, M.
How the Coronavirus Will Reshape Architecture, Chayka, K.
We’re All Socially Awkward Now, Murphy, K.

Artwork from top to bottom:
Alone in quarantine, oil on canvas 2020
Looking Out, oil on paper, 2020
And they lived happily ever after, oil paint on cutlery tray, 2020
Escape, oil on paper, 2020
Play with squares, oil on canvas, 2020
Peaceful Melancholy, oil paint on panel, 2020
Lucia and Nina Sleeping, oil on canvas, 2020