Dornbracht Conversations 9 “On Space and its Healing Qualities”
“On Space and its Healing Qualities” was the title of Dornbracht Conversations 9, during which architects and designers discussed conceptual approaches and architectural ideas that focus on the effects man-made structures can have on human health. In two sessions that took place in the week of the “Supersalone” in Milan, four international experts presented the basic concepts of their work and the current status of their projects.
People’s attitudes toward physical and mental health are changing. Many aspects of daily life are being put into a new perspective, and this development began even before the experience of the COVID pandemic. Scientific research suggests that there are direct correlations between how people perceive space and architecture, and how these affect their well-being. With this discussion of the special qualities architecture has for human well-being, Dornbracht continues the series of events it initiated back in 2008, which focus on current socially relevant topics, says Stefan Gesing, CEO of Dornbracht.
Think of a place…
What place do we imagine when we feel happiness, tranquility and relaxation? When asked by Oliver Heath, many members of the audience at the Dornbracht showroom in Milan imagined a visit to the woods or a stay by the sea; none thought of the workplace. Not a surprising assessment for the British designer, given that people feel increasingly stressed in their daily environment. According to Oliver Heath, permanent distraction leads to a loss of concentration, which 70 percent of employees complain about in the office. Distraction also leads to a decline in job satisfaction. It can take up to 23 minutes to regain full concentration after an unwelcome interruption. While stress and adrenaline increase on the one hand, productivity and well-being decrease on the other.
In his human-focused understanding of design, Oliver Heath draws on the basic principles of Biophilic Design. These include direct contact with nature (water, plants and light), the suggestion and simulation of nature, and how humans respond to and interact with nature. Visual associations, tactile impulses, warmth, scents, and the presence of water play a major role when there is direct contact. Oliver Heath: “Blue space theory suggests that we feel more relaxed and calm in spaces that contain water. They have the ability to reduce heart rates and blood pressure helping to restore and soothe us.”
Designing spaces using the principles of Biophilic Design leads to tangible and measurable improvements. In educational institutions, optimizing daylight leads to an increase in learning speed and improved exam results. In the healthcare sector, patients with a view of green spaces have shorter stays in the hospital, and hotel guests accept a price premium for rooms with a view of nearby nature.
“I love the concept of non rhythmic sensory stimuli – the gentle movement seen in ripples in the water or leaves blowing the Wind – which can create a sense of soft fascination – a calming and restorative moment to relax in.” (Oliver Heath)
Creating green oases
In the workplace, the introduction of natural elements can significantly increase productivity, as Nina Sickenga and Kelai Diebel from MOSS.Amsterdam confirm from professional experience. Their company sees itself as a developer of “sustainable spaces”, specializing in the greening of workplaces. Their “green oases” are created inside or even on top of buildings. The use of plants indoors improves the room climate, resulting in higher levels of concentration in the workforce. Instead of venturing out into nature now and then in their free time or on weekends, plants in the workplace bring nature directly to the people working in the office. Kelai Diebel: “We strive to green buildings and bring nature to the spaces where people spend the majority of their days!”. After all, people spend around 90 percent of their lives inside buildings, and 60 percent of that is in the working environment.
Taking care of plants
In addition to the basic conceptual principles, MOSS.Amsterdam has to contend with very practical challenges. One such problem is that these plants often do not get natural sunlight because they are inside buildings. Specialized lights with UV radiation can provide the necessary light for growth, and thanks to modern lighting technology these special plant lights do not disturb the rest of the lighting situation. Watering systems facilitate the upkeep and maintenance of the plants. While taking care of smaller scale implementations resembles that necessary for common houseplants, larger arrangements pose some considerable challenges. This is especially true for more extensive projects with special plants, as they represent a substantial investment for companies that has to be maintained. “But who really knows how to take care of a tree,” says Nina Sickenga. Tropical plants also have special humidity and temperature requirements. Furthermore, negative assumptions often come up during the preparation phase of a project, for example that problems with pests and insects are unavoidable.
In a larger context, MOSS.Amsterdam sees the city and outdoor spaces as areas of importance that require action. Nina Sickenga: “When we started the company, the question we faced was what kind of city do we want to live in in the future, and what kind of situation do we want our children to grow up in?”
While MOSS.Amsterdam has found practical answers to this question, Carlo Ratti takes an analytical and technical approach to the issue of interplay between the city and its inhabitants. As early as 2006, Ratti attracted attention at the Venice Architecture Biennale with an analysis of movement data from smartphone users.
The architect and engineer is Professor of Urban Technologies and Planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and director of the SENSEable City Lab research group, which studies and questions how new technologies are changing our understanding of cities, their planning and design, and ultimately how we live in urban spaces. During different phases of the COVID pandemic, Ratti examined the university’s email traffic and noticed some pattern changes. For him, the data shows that the use of spaces has changed during the pandemic. Indoor spaces have been and are being avoided, and outdoor spaces have become more important.
The importance of meeting in-person
Real, physical spaces are essential for social interaction and our well-being, says Carlo Ratti. Digital tools such as videoconferencing enable fixed groups to communicate with each other even in crises. In-group communication further strengthens so-called “strong ties”. The situation is different for relationships between different groups that do not have clearly defined rules. This informal exchange, which promotes diversity in thinking and creativity, suffers when there is no opportunity to meet in-person. The important “weak ties” are lost without any face-to-face contact. Ratti: “The most important aspect of healing is space. A physical space has a very important meaning as it is healing itself. We need connection.” Looking to the future, Carlo Ratti sees clearly defined roles: “Natural sciences looks at the world how it is, Design looks how the world could be.”
The transformation of the planet
Unlike Le Corbusier, who planned and built for thousands but never included them in the process, the transformation of the planet can only succeed through dialogue with each other and collective action. According to Ratti, networks are not the solution, but they can help in the transformation process. Moderator Marcus Fairs, founder and editor-in-chief of Dezeen, speaks of networks and groups in terms of people’s sense of belonging. They want to belong to a club, some with a clear, physical presence, others more subtly.
Photographer © Andrea Aschedamini / Dornbracht, 2021