How can architecture support our mental health? - Part One

How can architecture support our mental health? - Part One

Good architecture, like psychology and psychiatry, runs the gamut from hard science to soft skills. The creation of environments that nurture our well-being is a skilful dance between the understanding of building physics and technology, human interaction and empathetic instinct. Eventually, between the emotive and the objective, design ideas emerge into reality.

As an architectural designer and recipient of this year’s RIBA Journal Future Architects Writing prize, I am particularly invested in putting into words how architecture makes us feel. In this vein, I appreciate the subjective nature of architecture: What delights one person may not be to another’s taste. So, how could I possibly claim to design buildings and environments that make us feel good?

In case you are not overly familiar with what architects do, let me first describe their role in its most basic form. Using tools ranging from the humble pencil to state-of-the-art 3D software, architects design by practised intuition trained over many years, identifying and developing viable options rapidly and and visualising the best results for their clients. In my experience, designing a building involves a lot of moving parts: As I go through the process, I constantly balance options with budgets, form with construction methods, and materials with physical performance so that I can deliver the best solutions.

In combination, all these different elements contribute to the overall experience of a building. When I think back to my first few years in architecture school, the most important thing I was taught was to seek out and create light, views, pauses and through-routes where there are seemingly none. The results can be profound, helping humans feel in tune with the seasons and their circadian rhythm, as well as facilitating a sense of orientation, gentle guidance and connection. By contrast, poorly-lit, intrusively loud and labyrinthian spaces can feel oppressive, confusing and hostile.

Interestingly, we can measure some of these experiences in objective units. Concepts such as ‘thermal comfort’, ‘visual comfort’ and ‘acoustic comfort’ can be translated into acceptable ranges of celsius (temperature), lux (light) and decibels (noise). However, being able to interpret these numbers into well-built, practical and delightful spaces is one of the main skills of a good architect, as the different requirements can be contradictory. For example, planning sufficient access to daylight and views to improve our mood can quickly compete with the need to prevent glare and overheating, especially as energy-hungry air conditioning in glazed buildings is nowadays a big environmental issue.

Intelligent architectural strategies are needed to preserve the basic human need to connect with the outside through generous views, while also saving energy and making our environment more comfortable. Glazed buildings I have worked on or lived in have employed many creative solutions to this problem, ranging from frit, which is a ceramic pattern fused to and therefore shading the glass, to big movable façade elements that provide protection from the midday sun. The latter strategy is one I am very familiar with from my current dwelling, the Oskar von Miller Forum in Munich, which is a live-in scholarship programme for architecture and engineering students.

The Oskar von Miller Forum in Munich employs a double-skin of folded elements to reduce traffic noise, and moving timber elements to prevent overheating. It achieves excellent low-energy standards while providing quiet inner city living and views of treetops as reflected in the façade. Image Source

Two buildings that showcase architectural approaches to well-being

When the Oskar von Miller Forum was built, it replaced an office building on a busy artery into the city. At first, the site appeared too noisy for a residential building. However, by setting back the building behind a tree-lined forecourt, locating sleeping areas to the rear, and designing a façade with a folded double-skin that breaks up sound instead of reflecting it, the designers of Thomas Herzog Architekten successfully solved the conundrum. As a result, the view of the traffic flow now resembles a gentle silent film, fronted by seasonally changing treetop views. Especially in dense urban environments, city planners and architects must carefully engineer spatial relations and provide access to nature to make environments liveable and aid our physical and mental health.

As well as promoting and maintaining mental well-being through good design of homes and offices, good architecture can also support effective treatment of mental health conditions. For example, social prescribing is a holistic practice that complements clinical treatment with beneficial social activities such as volunteering, art or exercise.

In this vein, Kentish Town Health Centre in London was designed by architectural practice Allford Hall Monaghan Morris to house a variety of services, ranging from a GP practice, a dance school, and a social work team to an arts and health charity. By synthesising a wide range of activities into one building, the spatial proximity of a range of services can reduce barriers and inhibitions to try something new.

The Kentish Town Health Centre in London by Allford Hall Managhan Morris is an interdisciplinary NHS project connecting a GP practice with a variety of community health services. It thrives on the interconnection of people and spaces, as is evident in the reception area that resembles a town square. Source

The Health Centre is a fascinating hybrid building that connects various uses in new and unexpected ways. Yet, when we discuss architecture and mental health, another much less salubrious building type springs to mind: the institutionalised environment.

For today, I will conclude this blog and continue tomorrow with another instalment, where I will tell the history of mental health asylums, and showcase a number of groundbreaking new approaches to creating more nurturing environments for healing mental health.