How can architecture support our mental health? Part 2 Last week, we began with an overview of how architecture can influence our mental health, ranging from noise and light to proximity and social interaction. Today, we will take a closer look at the history and future of mental health hospitals, and the emerging field of neuroarchitecture. Historically, mental health asylums were akin to prisons; a lock-up with bare bones supervision for its unfortunate inmates. For example, the previous home of the Bethlem Royal Hospital from 1676 to 1815 was said to resemble the Palace of Versailles, but its grandiose façade belied the dire conditions inside. Not only were the patients confined to their cells, but paying visitors could gain access to stare at the patients through the bars, and even taunted them for reactions. Architecturally, it evidenced the sad results of poor spatial planning, when public and private spheres collided in a most disastrous way. Unsurprisingly, the Bethlem Royal Hospital’s shortened name soon gave rise to the term “Bedlam”, meaning chaos or confusion.
Considering that times have fortunately moved on, how would I design a better mental health hospital today? For me, the answer lies in working closely with the service users and health professionals to better understand their needs, wishes and aspirations. The provocatively named arts project “Madlove: A Designer Asylum” has done exactly that.
Its idealised design endeavours to co-create a new type of mental health hospital where users are listened to, inhibition to seek out mental health services is reduced, and the stigma attached to mental health distress is challenged. Through careful design, it has translated the needs of the users into a comforting and colourful scale model that destroys associations with the clinical environments of old. Instead, it emerges as a beautiful village that allows space for mutual care. And as a collaboration between artists James Leadbitter and Hannah Hull, architects Projects Office and muf, set designer Sascha Gilmours and 432 people with and without personal mental health experiences, it shows that it can truly take a village to achieve new visions that serve a wide range of people.
On a larger scale, Projects Office has begun to translate the typology developed in this project into a real-life building. Again, they consulted with artist James Leadbitter to develop a new design for the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services hub in Edinburgh. It provides inpatient and outpatient spaces for young people and thrives on colour, pattern and flexibility. By experimenting with standard materials and furnishings in surprising colours, the architects were able to achieve an innovative space on a tight budget.
In addition, by choosing items that can be easily reconfigured and planning for quiet nooks in communal spaces, the architects not only establish a successful relationship between the public and the private that is so essential to inpatient services, but also provide spatial metaphors for respite and reflection, opening up and communicating. As a result, a variety of strategies can be employed to work with young people using the service.
When architecture meets neuroscience Considering that designers thrive on individual client briefs and intuition, I wonder if there is hard evidence to support the effect of architecture on humans in terms of psychology. I know that architects and neuroscientists are clubbing together to understand how our built environment affects the brain in a new field called neuroarchitecture. I have asked architect and happiness advocate Frven Lim, director of DP Architects’ Studio London, to explain how he sees the relation between mental health and architecture: “Fundamentally, architecture is about providing shelter, creating a sense of security and privacy. But up to 90% of our time is now spent indoors surrounded by modern materials, while the human psyche is still hardwired through evolution to enjoy biophilic spaces and dislike sharp edges. We cannot reprogramme our brains, unless we wait another 50,000 years. So we must find ways to make the time we spend indoors more meaningful.” What is the biggest thing we should change about our built environment, I ask? “There is no big bang — sometimes, many small things can make a difference”, says Frven. “For example, when designing offices, I think of stairs as more than circulatory spaces. They can encourage physical activity and be spaces to connect with each other. And especially since the pandemic, we want offices to be much more than places that provide a desk. Connecting with somebody can be a small gesture but have a huge effect. This way, we can transform the world in lots of small ways.” While neuroarchitecture is still a relatively new field, scientists Alex Coburn, Oshin Vartanian and Anjan Chatterjee have surveyed the current literature in their 2017 publication, “Buildings, Beauty, and the Brain: A Neuroscience of Architectural Experience”. They explain that there is likely a link between emotions raised by architecture and the brain’s reward system. Interestingly, the authors also point out that most lab-based experiments are set up to show participants 2D imagery, while architecture is by nature enveloping and three-dimensional. Considering the inherent complexity of both architecture and human behaviour, it seems we still have a lot of discoveries ahead in regard to studying its effects on the brain. But even if neuroarchitecture cannot yet provide us with one crystal-clear conclusion, every piece of knowledge brings us one step closer to solving the puzzle. Until then, architects will continue to rely on their field work by experimenting with different designs, speaking with our clients and consulting with our building users, always striving to translate many individual experiences of happiness into better buildings for us all.