Reconnecting with Nature through Architecture and Design

The notion that exposure to nature is psychologically healthful is very old and has appeared in many cultures. A more specific form of this hypothesis, advanced by numerous writers through history, is the idea that contact with plants, water, and other natural elements can calm anxiety and help people cope with life's stresses.

As more of us flock to urban living, city designers are re-thinking buildings’ influence on our moods in an era of “neuro-architecture”.

As more of us flock to urban living, city designers are re-thinking buildings’  influence on our moods in an era of “neuro-architecture”. 

The notion that exposure to nature is psychologically healthful is very old and has appeared in many cultures. A more specific form of this hypothesis,  advanced by numerous writers through history, is the idea that contact with plants, water, and other natural elements can calm anxiety and help people cope with life's stresses. As an example, the renowned American landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted strongly believed that urban dwellers find nature relaxing, and wrote that nature reproduced in urban settings brings 'tranquility and rest to the mind'.  Today this idea is frequently heard in subjective arguments favoring, for example, city parks and the provision of urban fringe wilderness areas.  Given the persistence and importance of the 'nature tranquility hypothesis',  it is surprising that this notion has remained virtually untested by researchers. 

Two principal questions to be addressed here: 1) what effects, if any, does the visual perception of nature have on feelings of anxiety; and 2) how do these effects compare with those produced by views of urban environments lacking nature elements? environmental perception is of course multisensory and is not restricted to vision. If some types (as opposed to levels) of environmental content or stimuli do affect anxiety it is possible that senses such as hearing or smell are also of importance. Nonetheless, it is not artificial to focus on the visual aspects of landscapes. Vision is by far our most important sense in terms of yielding information about outdoor environments. Moreover, features of life in modern societies - such as heavy reliance on the automobile - have further heightened the Importance of vision relative to other senses. The individual. for example, who sits in an air-conditioned or heated room and gazes outdoors through a double paned window, experiences the outside world almost entirely in visual  terms. In this example, it would be of interest to planners as well as behavioral scientists to know whether the type of landscape visible through the window influences the individual's psychological wellbeing.

We now know, for example, that buildings and cities can affect our mood and well-being, and that specialized cells in the hippocampal region of our brains are attuned to the geometry and arrangement of the spaces we inhabit. 

The most common shapes in design are squares & rectangles. Shaped by a  straight line and right angles give viewers a sense of reliability and security.  

Triangles are commonly defined as energetic & dynamic shapes attributing to motion & direction. Usually, viewers will see the top of the triangle shape automatically. If triangles are facing left or right, it represents progression: either forward or backward in the sense of backtracking or dwelling in the past. ‘ 

Circles unlike other geometrical shapes, don’t have angles and it makes circles feel softer & milder than other shapes. Commonly they represent both unity & protection. Circles tend to invite the viewers into their  ‘completeness’. Circles never stop, and so neither does the  

One of the consistent findings is that people are strongly affected by building façades. If the façade is complex and interesting, it affects people in a positive way; negatively if it is simple and monotonous. For example,  when a group of subjects past the long, smoked-glass frontage of a Whole  Foods store in Lower Manhattan, their arousal and mood states took a dive. They also quickened their pace as if to hurry out of the dead zone. They picked up considerably when they reached a stretch of restaurants and stores, where (not surprisingly) they reported feeling a lot livelier and more engaged. 

As more of us flock to urban living, city designers are re-thinking buildings’ influence on our moods in an era of “neuro-architecture”.

One theory is that the visual complexity of natural environments acts as a  kind of mental balm. That would fit with Ellard’s findings in downtown  Manhattan, and also with a 2013 virtual reality experiment in Iceland in which participants viewed various residential street scenes and found the ones with the most architectural variation the most mentally engaging.  Another VR study, published this year, concluded that most people feel better in rooms with curved edges and rounded contours than in sharp-edged rectangular rooms – though (tellingly perhaps) the design students among the participants preferred the opposite.

The importance of urban design goes far beyond feel-good aesthetics. A  number of studies have shown that growing up in a city doubles the chances of someone developing increased risk for mental disorders such as depression and chronic anxiety. 

The main trigger appears to be what researchers call “social stress” – the lack of social bonding and cohesion in neighborhoods.  

It sounds counterintuitive: surely the sheer number of people makes social interaction more likely. While this may be true superficially, the kind of meaningful social interactions that are crucial for mental health does not come easily in cities. Is it possible to design against it, to build in a way that encourages connection? 

One of the first to try was the sociologist William Whyte, who advised urban planners to arrange objects and artifacts in public spaces in ways that nudged people physically closer together and made it more likely they would talk to each other, a process he called “triangulation”. 

One thing that is guaranteed to make people feel triggered in a city is a  constant sense of being lost or disorientated. Some cities are easier to navigate than others – New York’s grid-like street pattern makes it relatively straightforward, whereas London, with its hotchpotch of neighborhoods all orientated differently and the Thames meandering through the middle, is notoriously confusing. At the Conscious Cities conference, Kate Jeffery, a behavioral neuroscientist at University College  London who studies navigation in rats and other animals, made the point that to feel connected to a place you need to know how things relate to each other spatially. In other words, you need a sense of direction. Places with rotational symmetry, which look the same whichever direction you look at them from – Piccadilly Circus, for example – are a “nightmare” for orientation. 

A sense of direction is equally important inside buildings. One of the most notoriously disorientating buildings is the Seattle Central Library, which has won multiple awards for its architecture. Northumbria University’s  Dalton, who has studied the building for several years and has edited a  book about it, says she finds it fascinating that a place so “universally admired by architects … can be so dysfunctional”. That’s the thing about cities: people who live in them do a good job of making them feel like they are home despite all the design and architectural obstacles that may confront them, be it in a byzantine library or a sprawling park. 

A visible manifestation of this is the “desire lines” that wend their way across grassy curbs and parks marking people’s preferred paths across the city. They represent a kind of mass rebellion against the prescribed routes of architects and planners. Seen as a part of a city’s “distributed consciousness” – a shared knowledge of where others have been and where they might go in the future – and imagines how it might affect our behavior if desire lines (or “social trails” as she calls them) could be generated digitally on pavements and streets. 

Neuroscientists and psychologists all seem to agree: that successful design is not so much about how our buildings can shape us, but about making people feel they have some control over their environment. We’re  “creatures of the place we’re in”  

Let’s dive more into terms & specific examples, that will bring more sides to  the story: 

Organic architecture (a term that American architect Frank Lloyd  Wright used to describe his environmentally integrated approach to architectural design) is a philosophy that promotes harmony between human habitation and the natural world. This is achieved through design approaches that aim to be sympathetic and well-integrated with a site, so buildings, furnishings, and surroundings become part of a unified,  interrelated composition. 

Wright argued that "form and function are one." 

Ultimately organic architecture is all-inclusive to the materials, motifs, and basic ordering that are being repeated throughout the building as a whole.  The idea of organic architecture refers not only to the buildings' literal relationship to the natural surroundings but how the buildings' design is carefully thought about as if it were a unified organism. Geometrics. From the window to the floors, to the individual chairs intended to fill the space.  Everything relates to one another, reflecting the symbiotic ordering system  of nature. 

The name "Taliesin" is a nod to Wright's Welsh ancestry. While the Druid  Taliesin appears in Arturian legend as a member of King Arthur's Round  Table, according to Wright, in the Welsh language, Taliesin means "shining  brow." Taliesin was so named because it's built like a brow on the edge of  the hill, not on top of the hill itself." 

I believe you should never build on top of anything directly," Wright explained. "If you build on top of the hill, you lose the hill. If you build on one side of the top, you have the hill and the eminence that you desire...  Taliesin is a brow like that." 

Both Taliesin properties are organic because their designs adapt to the environment. Horizontal lines mimic the horizontal range of hills and shorelines. The sloping rooflines mimic the slope of the land. 

A well-known example of organic architecture is Fallingwater, the residence  Wright designed for the Kaufmann family in rural Pennsylvania. Wright had many choices to locate a home on this large site but chose to place the home directly over the waterfall and creek creating a close, yet noisy dialog with the rushing water and the steep site. The horizontal striations of stone masonry with daring cantilevers of colored beige concrete blend with native rock outcroppings and the wooded environment.

There are contemporary creations of organic architecture. The definition of  'organic' has dramatically changed during recent times. Avoiding materials  of construction that require more embodied energy to build and sustain it,  when the building blends naturally and sits seamlessly to its surroundings,  

reflecting cultural continuity, it is 'organic' and is idealistic. Examples  include leaving natural material, such as bedrock, exposed and  unsculptured, such as the underground Rådhuset metro station in Stockholm, which appears to occupy a natural cave system.

Biomorphism models artistic design elements on naturally occurring  patterns or shapes reminiscent of nature and living organisms. Taken to its  extreme it attempts to force naturally occurring shapes onto functional  devices. 

The Sagrada Família church by Antoni Gaudí in Barcelona contains many features inspired by nature, such as branching columns intended to reflect trees.

Other well-known examples of biomorphism in architecture can be found  in the Lotus Temple in New Delhi, by Fariborz Sahba, based on a lotus  flower, and the TWA Flight Center building in New York City, by Eero Saarinen,  inspired by the form of a bird’s wing. 

One of the leading contemporary architects that use biomorphism in his  work is Basil Al Bayati, a leading proponent of the school of Metaphoric  architecture whose designs have been inspired by trees and plants, snails,  whales, and insects such as the Palm Mosque at the King Saud University in  Riyadh, or the Al-Nakhlah Palm Telecommunications Tower, which are  based upon the form of a palm tree, or the Oriental Village by the Sea, in  the Dominican Republic that is based upon the segmented body of a  dragonfly. 

Biomorphism is also seen in modern industrial design, such as the work of  Alvar Aalto, and Isamu Noguchi, whose Noguchi table is considered an icon  of industrial design. Presently, the effect of the influence of nature is less  obvious: instead of designed objects looking exactly like the natural form,  they use only slight characteristics to remind us of nature.

“We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us,” mused  Winston Churchill, 1943.

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