Pandemic Architecture

New York’s outdoor dining structures are an architecture of uncertainty. Despite this, they are among the most inventive and engaging works of temporary architecture in New York’s history and thus ought to be archived. The origin of the outdoor dining structure comes from New York City’s Open Restaurants program launched in June 2020. Since then, 11,000 outdoor dining structures have been erected in New York City. At the outset, temporary architecture was used to keep businesses alive and patrons safe. Now, in a post-vaccine environment, the fate of the city’s outdoor dining structures is uncertain as the NYC Open Restaurants program undergoes a series of legal challenges in its aim to become permanent. As a photographer and architecture student, my work has turned to preserving the character of these structures.

Walk the streets of New York and you’re bound to come across outdoor dining structures of all types, sizes and materials. The outdoor dining structure as an architectural type holds importance within contexts both broad and local. In a broader context, New York’s outdoor dining structures contain cultural significance in the realm of temporary architecture and architecture without architects. The outdoor dining structure is largely derived from the do-it-yourself and readymade suburban backyard sheds popularized in the 1950s and 60s. [n1] A dining structure is typically built by contractors over the course of a few days using primarily plywood and pressure treated posts. They differentiate themselves from sheds with their lack of any attachment to the ground and thus reliance of filled barriers for stability. Moreover, the common archetype of the outdoor dining structure is largely open, resembling an elongated plywood shed with a missing elevation. This relationship with one of the oldest and most basic architectural types (the shed) ties the outdoor dining structure to the role temporary architecture can play as a tool used to adapt.

How this type is decorated brings us to the local level. The design of New York’s outdoor dining structures serves first to protect and then to communicate. Safety requirements are set by the NYC Open Restaurants program with a minimum filled barrier between patrons and roadway being 18 inches. From this foundation, bars and restaurants seek to market and differentiate themselves through architectural ornamentation, pastiche and outright flair, an architectural flamboyance reminiscent of Coney Island nearly a century ago.

In addition to attracting attention, many dining structures attempt to say something about the neighborhood they are in. Take the restaurant Grotta Azura in Little Italy for example, which chose to build a miniaturized Roman temple as their outdoor dining structure. All throughout the East Village you can find graffiti-scrawled outdoor dining structures staying true to the neighborhood’s embrace of the Avant Garde. The outdoor dining structures of Michelin-starred restaurant Daniel in the Upper East Side consists of individual curtained rooms evocative of confessionals. Across New York, outdoor dining structures are subtly communicating with passers-by and passers-through. In no other time in New York’s history has the city been given such free rein to express itself architecturally than during these pandemic years.

Where to from here? The fate of New York’s outdoor dining structures is uncertain beyond the fact that they are likely already within several years of the end of their useful life. The challenge will be a legal miasma as the program seeks to establish permanence through zoning law amendments and changes to city planning rules. If unchallenged, the permanent program is expected to launch in 2023. In the meantime, I believe it is important to record the physical products of mass deregulation--of the time when temporary architecture came to the rescue and enlivened the streets once again.