art and nature in action
An example of figurative art’s transformative effects can be found in Bridgeport, Conn.’s new Interdistrict Discovery Magnet School (IDMS), an earth sciences-themed school adjacent to a wetlands area and designed in consultation with staff of the nearby Discovery Museum. Drawing on the planned curriculum focusing on earth sciences and math, the walls are built with integrated “fossils”—tiles created by students and embedded into decorative bands of color reminiscent of geological strata. Such elements make IDMS a welcoming place and a “building that teaches, too,” to quote one educator.
For students from Bridgeport’s struggling inner city, the school is also a place of nurturing and respite. As many teachers know, this is critical today. “The insidious traumas in everyday life are often neglected or minimized, yet research tells us that the effects they generate can be serious,” says psychologist Doug Haldeman, who has studied the effects of bullying, discriminatory treatment and “micro-aggressions” triggered by one’s race or sexual orientation. In these contexts, figurative art provides an outlet and a means of reflection. Like biophilic elements and outdoor views, it becomes a positive distraction.
Figurative art and can also be used to express local and regional themes in ways that help connect
entire communities. For example, the recently opened Jonathan E. Reed School in Waterbury, Conn. features integrated art intended to connect children staff and visitors to nature and the local heritage. The imagery of bas relief panels and applied sculptures evoke natural cycles such as the seasons and day and night. Other artworks tie the school to its local history as a clock-making town, and reflect the importance of water in the development of this riverside city.
Likewise, at the Columbus Family Academy in New Haven, the school’s façade features sculptural panels depicting wave and wind patterns, and human forms that represent the “four winds.” Intermingled with shifting brick patterns, the sculptural patterns break down the building’s mass and function as a symbol of the surrounding ethnic diversity.
a challenge for the future
Moving forward, evidence-based healing principles must serve as the starting point for the design of spaces like clinics, schools, offices and community centers. Green building principles are a necessary component for any modern building, but in order to nurture and offer space for healing, restorative elements of beauty—as seen in the principles of biophilia and attention restoration—are essential. Biophilic stimuli and figurative artwork connect us to the earth and natural cycles—relationships that are essential to the healing process, even for those not occupying a hospital bed.
One could put it this way: Figurative art touches more of the self than the work itself. By saying something expressively rather than directly, layers of meaning are conveyed that defy words. Figurative works in interiors and architecture invite the occupant to become involved on any level that he or she is able to, and that is when true healing begins.
Barry Svigals, FAIA, is founding partner and Julia McFadden, AIA, is an associate principal for Svigals + Partners in New Haven, Conn., a full-service architecture and planning firm specializing in educational facilities, laboratories and the integration of art and architecture.