Beauty Heals

Nature and art not only help those in dire need, but ameliorate the “everyday traumas” we experience in all settings.

Beyond simply accommodating our needs, good design has the capacity to nurture and sustain. In fact, emerging evidence shows that by integrating the beauty of nature and art into interior environments, we as architects and designers even wield the power to heal.

Sustainable design elements such as daylighting and outdoor views are one toolset we commonly use to accomplish this, but new studies show that the A&D community can have an even greater influence on quality of life by embracing biophilia—our intrinsic human fondness for, and connection to, nature. Built environments that deprive occupants of this essential bond are flirting with premature obsolescence.

Social ecologist and author of “Biophilic Design” Stephen Kellert has gone so far as to call biophilia our “birthright” as human beings. At a recent talk about his documentary, “Biophilic Design: The Architecture of Life,” he described the experience of walking from a 2,500-car garage into 55 Park Street, a new lab building in New Haven, Conn. adjoining and supporting a cancer treatment center. This transition—one that many people experience—can be jarring and unpleasant. Yet he described his sense of “calm and uplift” as he passed from the dark garage into a soaring atrium dappled with sun, plantings and colorful panels. That’s the power of biophilic design at work.

nature in art
At the heart of biophilia is a need, deeply encoded within our DNA, for connection to the natural world. That includes sunlight, trees and flowers, and natural materials like wood, sand, leaves and stone. But just as deeply encoded is our intrinsic response to representations of these elements.

New research in the field of evidence-based design (EBD) is revealing what could be called a biophilic response to figurative art that is as strong as the reaction we have to nature itself. For example, researchers Kathy Hathorn and Upali Nanda found that, regardless of race or other demographic factors, “responses to figurative art depicting caring faces and positive body language were the same”—and overwhelmingly positive. Patients also preferred representational art to abstract; children gravitate toward “nature images with bright colors, water features and non-threatening wildlife” to most artwork alternatives—even cartoons—in the studies reviewed.

It turns out that art, like a mirror, reminds us of our humanity and place in nature—especially figurative art depicting human forms or shapes culled from the natural world. With this in mind, it’s a good idea to incorporate figurative art into building designs and interior spaces. Figurative art allows the design team to establish explicit connections to the earth, as well as to the building’s mission and use. Like biophilic design, it can also be a critical element in environments built to nurture, support and protect, including hospitals, senior care facilities, veteran housing, and even schools and libraries.

Research is also showing how natural imagery and figurative art contribute to the restoration of directed attention, a central modality of Attention Restoration Theory, which posits that people can concentrate better after being exposed to nature. Just as nature can transfix and fascinate people in a healing way, so too can representations of the natural world. For those confined indoors, artwork of this kind can also provide a “sense of extent,” or a relationship to the vastness of the outdoors. In this way—and like biophilic design—figurative art is a valuable antidote to our largely indoor existence.

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