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Biophilia and Healing Environments

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Biophilia —literally means love of life. But, aside from bringing live beings like plants, pets and people into our living spaces, these are also critical to the design of buildings that make them attractive and life-enhancing. Elucidates Dr. Nikos A. Salingaros, Ph.D. in Theoretical Physics and Professor of Mathematics at the University of Texas at San Antonio & member of architecture faculties of several universities.

While other factors play a role, the key elements of successful buildings (from the user’s point of view, not the architect’s) can be ascribed to biophilia. Judging exclusively by indicators of human health and ignoring the fame of the architect and the media hype for certain fashions, we can identify buildings that offer the greatest sense of well-being for their users. The structure of those buildings trigger a healing process in our own bodies, so that we consequently wish to experience such buildings more often.

Two parallel strands of conjecture help to explain the biophilic effect. – One source of the biophilic instinct comes from inherited memory, from our evolution and development in the environment. The second source comes from biological structure itself that is the geometrical rule of biological forms with which we share a template.

Need for Living structures

Human sensory organs and systems evolved to respond to natural geometries, characterized by colors, fractals, scaling, and complex symmetries. Fine-tuned to distinguish positive aspects (food, friends, mates) from negative aspects (threats) in the environment, our perceptual systems generate positive emotions from surroundings that resonate with our biophilic instincts. For example, experiments in hospitals show much faster post-operative healing and reduced need for pain medication in patients with rooms whose windows look out on trees. Hospitals and sanatoria reaching back to ancient Greece were set in natural surroundings and part of successful medical treatment once typically included time spent in gardens and under trees.

At the same time, we constantly suffer the inverse effect of our biophilia. Our bodies signal the absence of natural geometries and structural balance with anxiety and illness. Evidence accumulates to support the traditional wisdom that warns of social and mental decline in surroundings deprived of natural

features, geometrical stability, and ornamental variety — minimalist environments offering scant nutrition for our biophilic instinct. Since the advent of the industrial age, city dwellers who could afford it escaped in the summer to enjoy the health benefits of the countryside.

Eight Biophilic Elements

To impart a healing effect, an architect must apply the eight basic guidelines for generating specific biophilic elements, and not just mimic some organic form. Taking these eight elements as a rough design checklist for biophilic properties, we can generate criteria for evaluating the health-inducing aspects of architecture – built and unbuilt.

Light: Natural light is not merely essential to perceive and then to evaluate our surroundings. Our skin requires sunlight in order to manufacture vitamin D, crucial to our metabolism. Our circadian rhythms (our instinctual perception of time, our “internal clocks”) are regulated by sunlight on the eye and skin, which controls our sleep cycle via melatonin secretion. Whenever our circadian rhythms are disturbed (as in jet lag), our bodies are chronically fatigued and cannot function properly.

Colour: Color perception is one of our senses that links directly with our emotions. The color of plants, animals, rocks, etc., formed our preference of colors in the environment. We experience color both in the transmitted quality of light and as reflected from pigmented surfaces. Interior designers employ colors and color harmonies to affect people’s psychological mood.

Gravity: We feel and relate to balance through gravity. Plants and animals grow in gravity thus their forms show an exquisite vertical balance. In natural structures, the heavier parts are on the bottom and the lighter parts are on top. Our brain automatically computes the gravitational balance of forms that surround us. All objects in nature exist in gravitational equilibrium, and this informs our mental reverence for stable structures. Forced perspective — where scale is deliberately shrunk as your gaze rises — is used in traditional architecture and stage sets. This exaggerated perspective “reassures” our body of the gravitational balance around us, reducing stress.

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