Kind to the senses
We experience life through our senses. Designing for balance, presence, touch, taste, smell, sound and sight are all crucial to the development of good architecture; kind architecture. Neglecting the senses in architecture has a detrimental effect on the inhabitants’ healing. I’ve experienced this myself – a short stay with family saw me in a dark, featureless room. I could hear washing machines and children bouncing balls off walls, aggravating my symptoms. My senses inflamed, light and sound felt painful. I was loved and cared for, but the room distressed and depressed me. I thought I was overreacting, but I’ve since found evidence that proves my perception that the room adversely affected me is real.
In 2013, architecture firm GRAFT explored architecture’s effect on patient recovery in their design for two Intensive Care Units (ICUs) in a Berlin hospital. The purpose-built rooms were constructed to assist research in the physiological and clinical impact of healing environments in intensive care patients, led by Professor Claudia Spies.1 Her studies found that the architectural ICUs effectively reduced noise levels thus improving patients’ sleep quality and healing.2 Light therapy, using both natural and artificial sources, also had beneficial results.3
GRAFT found that while previous hospital designs rightly focused on providing doctors, nurses and staff with an efficient and safe workplace, patients were woefully neglected. Spies and GRAFT found research suggesting patients who felt comfortable and relaxed had shorter hospital stays and recovered quicker.4 To investigate supportive evidence for this research, GRAFT designed the ICUs from the patient’s perspective: the bed. Their floorplan dutifully considered how the configuration of the bed, equipment, and foot traffic would impact the sensorial experience of the patient, and by prioritising the patient’s visual access, GRAFT created a soothing and entertaining space; where light shows entertain and distressing medical equipment is out of sight.
Historically, the sensorial elements of healing have long been recognised by architects and medical professionals. In 1933, architect Alvar Aalto designed the Paimio Sanatorium to ‘function as a medical instrument’, but not without empathy.5 Aalto designed the building to receive natural light from large windows and indirect artificial lighting, and created new features to reduce noise – including a no-noise wash basin.
From a healthy person’s perspective, such attention to the senses seems like a trivial or even purely aesthetic pursuit – a mere courtesy. Surely, we think, medicines and therapy are paramount? In my personal experience, when we are too ill too even think for ourselves, it’s the simplest of details that offer comfort and respite from the very real terrors of sickness. The sensorial experience of light and sound (and others) become of equal importance to medicine and therapy.
Kind architecture considers our senses to influence our experience. Light, colour, opacity, sound, frequencies, texture, smell, temperature, presence and gravity – all become the architect’s therapeutic devices that, when used skillfully, artfully and in harmony, create a beneficial effect on healing and recovery.
- GRAFT, Architecture Activism (Basel, Switzerland: Birkhäuser, 2016), 207.
- A. Luetz et al., “Feasibility of Noise Reduction by a Modification in ICU Environment,” Physiological Measurement 37, no. 7 (2016): 1041-2.
- A. Luetz et al., “Patient-Centered Lighting Environments to Improve Health Care in the Intensive Care Unit,” Clinical Health Promotion 6, no. 1 (2016): 5.
- E. R. C. M. Huisman et al., “Healing Environment: A Review of the Impact of Physical Environmental Factors on Users,” Building and Environment 58 (2012).
- Ellis Woodman, “Revisit: ‘Aalto’s Paimio Sanatorium Continues to Radiate a Profound Sense of Human Empathy’,” Architectural Review (17 November 2016).
A retroactive manifesto on recovery and architecture.
Part 4 – December 2015