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Architecture's Health Risk
Should we feel threatened by architecture's effect on things like our anxiety levels, and physical fitness?

Photo: Flickr, leander.canaris

Architecture can mean many different things to different people, but do we ever consider the impact it may have on our health? According to Richard Sommer, Architect and Dean of the John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design at University of Toronto, the design and redesign of our cities can affect everything from our levels of anxiety and physical fitness, to the quality of the air and our capacity to manage disease. We spoke to Sommer about the important relationship between architecture and our physical and mental health.

In what ways can architecture affect the public health?

It depends to some extent on how you define architecture. If, like me, you understand architecture to exist at many scales and in relation to many forms, then a chair, a building, a port, a city/region, even a global network has an architecture that can affect human health. Where and how one sits, and for how long, the way a building mediates elements such as temperature, light, and air, the kind of physical and social relationships and mobility that the layout and infrastructure of a city/region allows, or limits; all these have a profound impact on the combined mental and physical health of any human population.

Obviously, at extremes, being socially isolated or physically inactive, or conversely, being physically overworked, or socially overexposed can cause individuals or whole populations to become ‘unwell’.  Yet, the role that architecture and environments play in this dynamic is often invisible, or at least not well understood. Usually when we talk about architecture and human health, we think of hospitals and clinics – the places where people go to be cured when they get sick.  

Changing or evolving the way we design “healthcare” environments is important, because they are the extreme cases, or laboratories for exploring how architecture might better perform, more broadly, to sustain and cultivate human health.  Hospitals are the monuments to human health, but cities are not to be made of just monuments.

How has the relationship between architecture and human health evolved over time?

Ideal forms of architecture have, throughout history, evolved in relation to changing conceptions of the human body and psyche. Greek temples in which philosophical thinking was to be spurred by perambulating along loggias between the interior and the landscape, the Roman bath in which hygiene was a social art, the sensorial architecture of the enlightenment and animate architecture of the romantics – all these forms of architecture are still with us in some way and have broad implications for how we inhabit the built world.  The profound change that modernism and modern technology have brought is the ability to control and manipulate the elements, and extend the body and mind into non-concrete forms.  It was not only concrete and steel that made big and tall buildings and cities possible, but more importantly indoor plumbing, artificial light and elevators; add to this electronic and digital forms of communication and the static, tripartite, classical conception of a building as the frame for the body completely dissolves.

Are there any buildings in Toronto that you think demonstrate the perfect balance between architecture and human health?

I try to avoid universals such as “perfect balance,” so no.  Nevertheless, I think the fact that one (ok, some people) can still have a small, quiet house or dwelling in the center of old Toronto, and be able to be easily connected to all the rich and dynamic things the city offers, presents healthy opportunities for ‘work-life’ balance, raising children, and aging in place, among other prospects.

Do you think architects place enough emphasis on human health when planning projects?

Some architects are more sensitive to these issues than others are.  One can make a very body-centric building, yet have its intended effects be thwarted by the environment that surrounds it. That is, architecture can be undone by poor planning and vice versa.  There is no doubt that more can be done, but to effect real change architecture has to be conceptualized from the scale of furnishings to the surrounding landscape, to the city.

Culture and politics come into play as well. In dangerous cities, or societies with high degrees of social, economic or religiously based segregation, people may live, and even thrive in compounds or enclaves.  Some people might even call these conditions healthy “communities,” but I do not consider these healthy environments for modern, democratic societies.

Regarding Toronto, how do you think the relationship between architecture and human health will develop in the coming years?

Toronto is a very big city, with a physically and socially diverse geography.  Given that reality, I would not project any wholesale solution to the problems of human health and architecture, but I do think certain big pictures can be drawn and pursued as goals.  The important thing is to begin to raise consciousness about how the design of where we live work, and, yes, are sometimes cared for, can have an immense impact on our health and quality of life. Much of Toronto is relatively new, especially in the amalgamated areas, with a built landscape only one generation old. 

This presents opportunities because the greatest parts of any city have often been remade many times.  Important structure or patterns can be preserved, but we must have the courage to substantially reform many parts of the city. Intensification can be healthy, but it has to go beyond just building more high-rises, to include other forms of dwelling and urban life.  In the wrong format, and without consideration of the surrounding landscape and civic realm, a high-rise complex can create conditions that are as suburban, or potentially unhealthy as an over-isolated housing subdivision.

Dean Sommer will be moderating the forum “Zoning Health: Architecture’s Curative Nature at the Isabel Bader Theatre on 93 Charles Street West on Thursday, January 12th at 6:30pm. (The forum is presented by John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design at University of Toronto and is part of their Daniels Fora series of talks.)

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