Architecture as good medicine
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Architecture as good medicine

The latest themed issue of The Plan Journal looks at how the design of spaces can help us live bette

Architecture as good medicine
By Editorial Staff -

You’ve just visited the doctor, and she’s prescribed you an exciting new drug. So, you make a beeline for the nearest pharmacy and hand over the prescription. You want to start taking these pills ASAP! Even before driving home, you open the box and quickly scan the leaflet – skipping the side effects, of course, because they only happen to other people.

And that’s the point. Over recent weeks, a lot of us have been injected with a Covid-19 vaccine, without really knowing at the time if it will finally put the pandemic behind us or what the consequences of the miraculous serum will be. Were any of you given the leaflet from the box the vaccine came in? If you were, did you read it? Probably not. Or, perhaps, you might have taken a peek at the side effects, without really dwelling on them too much, just as we do with any other medicine. Why do we do that? I think it’s all about trust and hope – and that hope is that what we do today will benefit us tomorrow.

Architecture is a kind of medicine for the same reason. It bypasses time in that the architect’s vision of today looks after the quality of life of a person tomorrow. A project might have some immediate effect but, much more often, its true effectiveness can only be appreciated in the long term. Working in architecture and urban planning today means having the hope and knowledge that designing healthy spaces will genuinely help heal people tomorrow. Public health and the environment are closely related.

This crisis, like others in the past, has given us a genuine opportunity to look at our cities with a critical eye and reassess them. And the history of architecture has always taught us that the way we design the buildings we live in is of vital importance to our physical, mental, and social wellbeing. Whether they’re private or public, urban or rural, built environments need to contribute in a positive way to the health of all their users.

The physical and social environments we live in have a huge impact on our health. This begins with our mood and the time we spend in nature and extends through to the way our food is produced and packaged, and how we move around the inside of offices, schools, and other places. For this reason, design shouldn’t be limited to some emergency agenda or some temporary reaction to a global health crisis. Our cities teach us that while some effects happen in an instant, others accumulate gradually, just like some medicines work immediately while others need time.

So, yes, architecture is indeed a medicine – one that genuinely helps us achieve balance in our lives. Maurizio Sabini, editor of The Plan Journal, is convinced of this and has built the latest issue of the magazine around the theme of healthy urbanism. Tired of seeing essential academic research fail to connect with the real world, he established this interesting method of sharing innovative studies that aims to disseminate and promote multisectoral research. With this approach, the architect/academic, on the one hand, and the person who simply experiences the world as it is, on the other, come together and trigger a shared creativity that can change built environments, transforming them into places in which wellbeing and balance are key.

I’m presenting here some of the ideas and visions contained in this issue of the magazine that really struck a chord with me. Among them are those of environmental epidemiologist Richard Neutra, who provides ample facts, figures, and experimental evidence as he examines why it is that having a view of some greenery from a hospital bed accelerates post-operative recovery. Then there’s Alberto Francini and Fabrizio Mangiaveti’s provocative and visionary Ark for Survival. But I’ll leave you with the pleasure of discovering all the articles in this issue for yourself.

>> Browse The Plan Journal issue dedicated to Health Urbanism (in english)

Hippocrates for doctors as well as architects

New physicians are often required to swear to the Hippocratic Oath, a text written by the Greek physician of the same name that outlines the requisites needed to enter his school of medicine and practice that art. Although in an extensively updated version today, the oath still retains its basic principles. It opens:

Aware of the importance and solemnity of this act and the commitment I am taking upon myself, I swear that I shall …

* pursue the defense of life, protection of physical and mental health of man and relief of suffering; all my professional activity will be carried out with responsibility and constant scientific, cultural and social commitment …

* treat each patient with equal care and commitment, regardless of ethnicity, religion, nationality, social status, and political ideology, promoting the elimination of all forms of discrimination in healthcare.

This is only a part of the longer oath, but these words – so relevant and important today – need to be kept constantly in mind. And not only by doctors. Without wanting to blow our own trumpet, we architects and designers have the same responsibility. Especially when science is telling us how powerful both internal and external spaces are in shaping our lives. Healthy, well-designed spaces are conducive to different actions and affect different parts of the brain – the same parts, in fact, as medications do. In other words, spaces trigger the same mechanisms as drugs. In this way, designed environments are transformed from drawings on a page to a means of influencing the brain and body of those who occupy them. This is a key concept that’s now gaining currency and is being proven by recent discoveries: well-designed urban environments activate the same biochemical pathways as drugs such as morphine and aspirin.

© Julius Shulman. 


Revisiting public health through design 

In his article in the issue of The Plan Journal dedicated to healthy urbanism, environmental epidemiologist Dr. Raymond Richard Neutra discusses the vast and widely debated issue of public health through design. This is a theme that his father, Richard Neutra, studied extensively.

The Neutra Institute for Survival through Design is about to republish my father’s book, Survival through Design. … Between the late 1930s and the date of publication in 1953, he would wake up at four o’clock in the morning and begin writing [the themes of his research] down. This was also the hour of day when he did his designing.

Richard Neutra was a pioneer of the modern architectural approach, steering it towards health and wellbeing. Many years ago, he had already identified the importance of creating spaces able to cater to the needs of the individual:

[Built environments must serve] Biological Individuality despite standardization: More and more of us live in a standardized urban environment. This needs to be designed to accommodate our profound biological individuality just as medicines and medical doses need to be different for different people.

Corona Avenue School a Los Angeles, California (1935). La natura come ambiente ideale per l’apprendimento. © Julius Shulman. 

Neutra also questioned the effects of delight:

Just as it is possible in psychiatry to study what kind of compassionate interventions are effective, so is it possible to research what works in producing wellbeing and delight in the built environment. On closer research, these “subjective” effects turn out to have objective physiological consequences.

A view into greenery speeds up healing 

A window with a view of nature – it might sound like the most banal thing in the world, but Richard Neutra studied in depth how being able to see some greenery from a hospital room accelerates the post-operative recovery of any patient suffering from any illness.

Only knowing from statistical evidence that such a view does indeed speed up post-operative recovery would not be enough. As an environmental epidemiologist, I exclusively generated the latter kind of evidence.

>> Continue reading about Richard Neutra’s experiments in his son Raymond’s article in TPJ (in English).



Environmental arks for survival: regaining the lost paradise 

This design vision by Alberto Francini and Fabrizio Mangiaveti is certainly more imaginative and poetic than the previous topic, based entirely on the link between neuroscience and architecture. The purpose is also different.

Here’s the story behind the Arks for Survival project, which, for obvious reasons, takes its cue from Genesis and Noah:

Humanity is facing a watershed moment between an era of the availability of resources and an era in which degraded matter will constitute not only the limit to our growth, but also the end of our planet as a community of the living. Our vital space, the result of the ancestral act of building settlements and transforming land, will have to adapt to a sustainable anthropic action. The human device, human creation, requires a discontinuity that, passing through the awareness of the disaster, brings about a change in meaning, in which the logos (our narrative) regains the archaic meaning of collecting, embracing … .

The Ark as a new alliance between the natural environment and human beings. Photomontages and diagrams by © Alberto Francini and Fabrizio Mangiaveti.

The objective of the design is immediately obvious – and it’s not just a physical one. The project sets out to completely change the current world narrative and start a new one that’s fully focused on protecting the planet and all of its inhabitants. The designers’ point of departure was the meaning of device and its role in this new narrative – a new Salvific Ark, an ecological living machine able to reestablish balance between different forms of anthropization and the planet. These new arks would replace our current crystallized devices (including our buildings and cities), which are unable to respond effectively to ongoing change. They would preserve those human systems currently ailing under new social, ecological, and health diseases.

As part of this vision, within these new arks, people would regain their lost paradise through changes such as a commitment to more green spaces and biodiversity, lower population density, sustainable agricultural production, and environmentally friendly mobility, energy, and technologies. The outcome of the project would be the birth of a Neoland – a world system created out of the encounter between a natural accident and a new anthropic genesis that’s much more ethical and environmentally aware.

>>  Discover Neoland and read the article in The Plan Journal (in English).

Michelangelo, Cappella Sistina. © restoration.jpg. 

There are no definitive answers right now. But there are so many different views and visions that it’s hard not to put down this issue of TPJ dedicated to healthy urbanism. As well as the above contributions, the issue features essays on urban planning strategies aimed at psychological and physical wellbeing (Aki Ishida); the global perspective, with reports from New York to Lagos (Emily Moss et al.); reflections on the critical role of open spaces in our future cities (Ulysses Vance); and the power of small-scale tactical urbanism within the complex infrastructure systems of Barcelona, Beijing, and Milan (Luca M.F. Fabris et al.).


Why support and read TPJ?

The Plan Journal is intended to disseminate and promote innovative, thought-provoking, and relevant research, studies, and criticism related to architecture and urbanism. The magazine grew out of an awareness that academia is all too often engaged in research that’s disconnected from the real-world challenges that face different professions, and that research is only possible for a small number of professional organizations, and, even then, with limited platforms for its dissemination. The overarching aim of TPJ is therefore to enrich the dialogue between researchers and professionals so as to foster both pertinent new knowledge and intellectually driven modes of practice.

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Prospective contributors are encouraged to submit proposals or complete manuscripts to the Editor in Chief. Subject to positive feedback, proposals can then be developed into complete manuscripts and submitted for review, using the dedicated portal on the TPJ website.

After preliminary approval, manuscripts will be forwarded to suitably qualified people for commenting. TPJ is committed to following a rigorous double-blind peer review process using at least two reviewers. The Editor in Chief may also occasionally invite recognized academics, critics, or professionals (including members of the editorial board) to contribute to the journal, without going through the peer review process if warranted by the author’s reputation.

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