Mental health disorders, namely, anxiety and depression, have reached an unprecedented peak; recent research demonstrates that these disorders have increased by 70 per cent over the last 25 years. Additionally, developments in the field of environmental psychology have elicited that the built environment is a crucial factor affecting mental health. It is, therefore, necessary for architects to address the issue when designing, thereby using a holistic approach to promote general well-being. The paper aims to discuss this issue.
The project, Asylum: A Place of Refuge, seeks to create a reinterpretation of the eighteenth century asylum, through which the intervention of nature – vast pastures and bucolic settings – believed it had the power to cure the human psyche while, simultaneously, offering redemption. This paper examines the project in relation to multiple books and readings conducted prior and while designing. These references, many of which are considered staples in the field, refer to the important role and impact architecture and landscape have on mental health. Additionally, it discusses the ways architects can consciously design to promote physiological well-being and ensure positive psychological experience through adoption of a comprehensive approach that bridges the gap between the body and mind. Finding sources related to environmental psychology was also crucial as the research conducted in this field provides scientific reasoning to support design decisions.
By employing strategies from the readings as well as creating a stimulating space that challenges the conception of architecture, the project: Asylum: A Place of Refuge, was born. The use of a powerful, specific and emotive language inherent to the setting as well as a constant relationship between nature and the built environment creates a safe haven for people to resort to, away from the pressures and stresses of everyday life amplified by bustling cities. The ethos of the project is essentially inspired upon Ebenezer Howard’s concept introduced in his book, Garden Cities of Tomorrow, where he states that “human society and the beauty of nature are meant to be enjoyed together. The two must be made one” (Howard, p. 48).
The application and the validity of the project are limited to a conceptual proposal leading to speculative results. Although the research paper is based on architecture-related readings and research conducted in the field of environmental psychology, to verify how this project would function in a real-world setting, it is essential to build it.
Applying these findings and this approach to architecture can enhance the quality of life. These ideas can be applied to many different building types including, but not limited to, living spaces, workplaces and recreational spaces.
This paper is based on an architecture project that was created by the author as part of their undergraduate thesis. As a result, this paper and proposal is fully original.
Osama, M. (2019), "Asylum: A Place of Refuge: A proposal for reducing mental health disorders through architecture and landscape", Archnet-IJAR, Vol. 14 No. 1, pp. 60-69. https://doi.org/10.1108/ARCH-04-2019-0083Download as .RIS
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“Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life” as Picasso once said. However, one is left to ponder on what happens when the dust of everyday life cannot be easily brushed off? Instead, lingers and accumulates to create a mound of fossilised dirt. While one proceeds with their daily duties and obligations, one is also faced by an undeniable disparity between the body performing its routine tasks and the mind feeling caged and omitted. Consequently, an intangible yet palpable border between body and mind is created. Inspired by the recent developments in environmental psychology revolving around the role of the built and natural environment in affecting our mental stability, I question Picasso’s statement and offer an alternative; instead of art being able to wash away from the soul the dust of everyday life, I believe it is, in fact, Architecture, the mother of all arts, combined with Mother Nature, that is potentially capable of relieving our soul. Guided by this insight, I was able to create a project that is a reinterpretation of the eighteenth century asylum, known for its bucolic settings immersed within the pastures of England. However, this project is a reinterpretation of this archetype as it is within an opposed, yet equally fascinating, setting that of the vast desert and rocky mountains of the outskirts of Sharjah, United Arab Emirates, secluded from an urban activity. The project capitalises on the synergy between architecture and landscape and suggests that we can satisfy user needs by returning to the original meaning of the Asylum – A Place of Refuge – through the built environment and nature. In conjunction to reading architecture books and publications related to the role of nature and landscape in the built environment, I have also sought to read on research related to environmental psychology. The primary sources for architecture include the renowned architect, Peter Zumthor – well-versed on the question of “Architecture and Landscape”, and the role it can have on our well-being. Furthermore, publications from respected characters in the above-mentioned field, such as Ruskin and Alain de Botton, were identified.
1.1 Environmental psychology
According to the online Journal of Environmental Psychology, this field is defined as “the scientific study of the transactions and interrelationships between people and their surroundings” (Van Der Linden, 2019). Gifford (2014), a pioneer of environmental psychology explains that the development in this field of study only began around half a century ago because “psychology had rarely extended its concern to the physical setting of behavior; for the most part, the discipline proceeded in its investigations as if people acted and interacted nowhere, in a black void” (p. 543). The advent of this field has broadened the understanding of mental health and how it is profoundly affected by our daily interactions with the natural and built environment. Depression and anxiety observed especially amongst teenagers, has increased by 70 per cent over the last 25 years (Bedell, 2016). While many of the patients seeking help are receiving adequate attention and have access to appropriate medication and care, the challenge persists. If these stresses persevere and become “[…] chronic, then it may contribute to a variety of health problems in the long run, such as depression or cardiovascular disease” (Hartig et al., 2010, p. 133).
1.2 The eighteenth century asylum as an archetype
Moral therapy or treatment was described as “the cornerstone of mental health care in the 1800s” (Moral Treatment, n.d.). This method emerged as a response to the previously agonising medical treatments prescribed to asylum seekers which involved harsh methods of bloodletting, chains and manacles (n.d.).
As opposed to the medieval perspective of psychological disorders being considered as evil and, occasionally a sign of being possessed by Satan, moral therapy was a more humane approach, which allowed asylum seekers to rest and recover. One of the main attributes of the eighteenth century asylum was “the idea that time in nature, away from the usual urban setting, would facilitate a therapeutic process” (Hartig et al., 2010, p. 135). One of the first retreats adopting the “moral therapy” strategy in York, England, opened in 1796; this retreat clearly identified “the use of nature as a means of calming insanity” (Edington, 1997, p. 95) serving as a symbol of a new orthodoxy in the care of the insane’ (Digby, p. 258). The retreat also ensured “the removal of a lunatic from all associations in home or community influencing his or her condition” (Edington, 1997, p. 95). The latter point suggests that the environment has a significant role on mental health, foreshadowing the environmental psychology approach developed much later. Prior to the eighteenth century asylum, the sanatoria, where tuberculosis, the leading cause of death, was treated was “meant to isolate infected people from the rest of the population and provide them with good air, sunlight and pleasant views of nature for a more efficient healing process” (Hartig et al., 2010, p. 136). They were often located in the scenic countryside of Switzerland, Finland and California prior to the discovery of antibiotics (p. 136). Furthermore, from the 1600s onwards, the development of spas and the introduction of water for relaxation to relieve the mind and to treat or alleviate some mental and physical illnesses were gaining popularity (p. 135). These discoveries of the healing powers of nature influenced the creation of the eighteenth century asylum, which sought to find a balance between nature and the built environment as a cure.
2. The symbolic and philosophical role of nature
I began exploring the role of the environment, both built and natural, in affecting our mental health as I was perplexed by the discovery that depression and anxiety have increased so drastically over a quarter of a century. As Peter Zumthor, the respected Pritzker Prize winner, clearly states in his chapter “Architecture and Landscape” from Thinking Architecture: “Landscape gives me the feeling of being at home” (Zumthor, 1998, p. 95). He also states that despite the scale of nature and the world in relation to us, it offers him a “sanctuary” and even “freedom and serenity” (Zumthor, 1998, p. 96). Upon completion of his book and, more specifically, the chapter dedicated to the relationship between architecture and landscape and the beneficial outcomes derived from this relationship, I was left to ponder on whether the environment, both built and natural, which in many cases can be one of the triggers of these conditions, can also be the source of relief for those subjected to and at risk of mental health disorders. The project, Asylum: A Place of Refuge, takes into account the philosophical and symbolic role of the setting. It is placed within the transition of the desert and the mountains – two powerful natural conditions. By choosing a site where there are two characteristic natural features, the building ultimately acts like a bridge between them as seen from the site plan (Figure 5). In the early diagrammatic studies, various configurations were analysed. However, the final decisions relating to the site were made not solely due to the inherent powers it disposes and to its undeniable captivating character, but also for what this site can symbolise; as one enters the project (Figures 3 and 4) they do so from the rocky south side but as one proceeds along the project, the vast desert makes way depicting a person’s transition of state; from an initial heavy mind to departing with a clean slate, free of the previous turmoil, reminding one of the idea of being “inwardly liberated” by textures, materials and environments that surround us (Alexander et al., 1977, p. 119).
3. The redemptive and healing powers of nature
Nature, as having redemptive and healing powers, has often been a motif expressed in many of the arts, namely through the visual arts, performing arts and literature. This was portrayed more recently, in 2014, in the movie Wild, where the protagonist hikes 1.1 miles along the Pacific Crest Trail. Here, she goes on a healing journey to redeem herself and heal from the traumatic experiences she has been subjected to. This notion that nature has redemptive powers is one that is particularly intriguing and comforting to many.
Contemplating and appreciating nature as evidence or a suggestion of a higher power as well as meditating on notions of birth and rebirth inherent to nature are also valuable points to establish. Although the period of the enlightenment is known for “the application of reason and scientific method” (Garraty and Gay, 1972), it was also the time when a shift occurred towards the “appreciation of wild nature and the belief that the thoughts and intentions of God could be discerned in natural phenomena” (Garraty and Gay, 1972). As Zumthor, and many other philosophers, writers, artist and religious scripture suggest, “we come from [landscape] and we will return to it” (Zumthor, 1998, p. 96). This simply and effectively summarises our intrinsic and unbreakable link to nature. Meditating on the multiple cycles of birth and rebirth found in all aspects of nature can offer a sense of hope. The constant state of flux and the proof that we are constantly evolving and that not a single organism remains the same portrays how the deepest of despairs can eventually heal. Embracing this notion in the project was achieved through the fluid and unconstrained planning of spaces as seen in the plan (Figures 6 and 7). This allows for the spaces to be used according to the weather condition and the specific recreational/therapeutic activity.
4. Adapting to the project’s location and existing conditions
Natural features, especially the desert and mountains, are known to provide humans with a comforting shelter where reflection, meditation and internal revelations take place and flourish, similar to the proverbial couch in therapy sessions. As Alain De Botton (2006), a renowned British philosopher and architecture enthusiast, says in his book, The Architecture of Happiness, “we depend on our surroundings obliquely to embody the moods and ideas we respect and then to remind us of them. We look to our buildings to hold us, like a kind of psychological mould, to a helpful vision of ourselves” (p. 107). This shows how architecture can affect us in the psychological realm and reveals that it can, perhaps, act as a bridge between our body and mind as the physiological experience of architecture relates directly to our psychological experience. Perhaps, it is the level of success of the positive feedback between the body (physiological experience) and the mind (psychological experience) that can be a factor in distinguishing mediocre architectural experiences from incredible ones. Those that are capable of moving us in the same way that powerful music and art does. In fact, Ruskin, the influential nineteenth century critic of art, architecture and society, clearly distinguishes between “mere buildings” and “architecture” by suggesting that architecture begins where “mere buildings” end (Ruskin, 1849, p. 28). While “mere buildings” simply achieve the required scheme, brief and scope without looking to achieve something beyond, architecture, on the other hand, begins when we move beyond simple functionality and introduce features that will elevate us as individuals and, collectively, as societies (Ruskin, 1849, p. 28). It is this architecture that “can arrest transient and timid inclinations, amplify and solidify them, and thereby grant us more permanent access to a range of emotional textures which we might otherwise have experienced only accidentally and occasionally” as discussed in the best-selling book, A Pattern Language: Towns, Building, Construction (Alexander et al., 1977, p. 121).
I would argue that “Asylum: A Place of Refuge” is architecture defined by Ruskin’s terms as it seeks to create a space that can heal the mind from tumultuous preoccupations, so that through its sight and experience of it, it can “contribute to [the user’s] mental health, power and pleasures” (Ruskin, 1849, p. 7). A unique language is created, able to fit the environment as well as touch the human mind through its use of material, texture and nature. This language emerged from the outset through the conscious decision of the project’s location as it is placed within the transition of the desert and the mountains – two powerful natural conditions. The materials, textures and conditions, found on site, were initially expressed through dynamic drawings (Figure 1) meant to evoke the fissures in the mountains and debris left behind from the mountains themselves (Figure 2). The project is made of concrete, composed of the local sand, which weathers naturally to eventually become part of the landscape. As I transitioned from the two-dimensional drawings to the three-dimensional model, spatial qualities evoking cave-like sensations were discovered and refined. The project makes use of the existing canyon-like condition by placing the project alongside one of the mountains. This allows for direct contact with the textured surface of the mountain creating an intimate relationship with it. The intimate relationship between the built environment and nature is strongly related concepts introduced by the founder of the English garden-city movement, Ebenezer Howard. In his book, Garden Cities of Tomorrow, he states that “human society and the beauty of nature are meant to be enjoyed together. The two must be made one” (Howard, p. 48).
4.1 Defining formal and informal spaces
By positioning the project alongside one of the mountains, the project distinguishes itself from the formal and the informal part; the formal part constituting the project while the void constitutes the informal part. This void is created by almost a second canyon condition, this time, between the project and the second mountain (Figures 5 and 6). Here, hikers can use this passage as a bypass path instead of going around the mountain. Below this void are recreational spaces that one can peak into from above.
5. An interchangeable exterior and interior relationship
An uninterrupted dialogue between the two was inspired by the concepts developed by the pioneer in landscape architecture, Frederick Law Olmsted “whose plans for urban parks in major North American cities reflected an awareness of the somatic and psychiatric medical theories of his time” (Hartig et al., 2010, p. 135).
To counteract the increasingly damaging effects of the urban lifestyle, Olmsted discovered that creating pockets of natural interventions was an efficient method “to give the mind a suggestion of rest from the devouring eagerness and intellectual strife of town life” (Olmsted, 1870, p. 184). Evidence generated, decades later, supported Olmsted’s hypothesis; the overall pattern demonstrates that “although green environment don’t always reduce stress, they certainly can, and generally do” (Kuo, 2010, p. 18). Those suffering from mental health disorders, such as major depressive disorder, have shown improved self-esteem and mood while engaging with nature (Barton and Pretty, 2010).
Hence, the project has seamless transitions between exterior and interior in order to create a building that is not hermetically sealed but, on the contrary, invites nature in through the courtyards and the sand baths (Figure 8) in the exterior. From the entry of the project, one can perceive this overt invitation as the entry is defined by a compressed gap between the mountain (nature) and the volume (architecture) (Figure 3).
Throughout the project, the relationship between interior and exterior is exploited and considered in equal proportion in order to avoid clear distinctions and to create, instead, a spectrum. In A Pattern Language: Towns, Building, Construction, the importance of considering, both, the interior and the exterior is expressed. Exterior residual spaces defined by building blocks and exterior spaces that have not been fully designed or considered, will not be used by the people or community. Well-designed exterior spaces with maximum human interaction can be identified through a figure-ground relationship where there is an easy reversal between exterior and interior being figure or ground (Alexander et al., 1977, pp. 518-523) (Figures 4–6).
5.1 Positive vs negative spaces
Positive and negative spaces affect our well-being, “people feel comfortable in spaces which are ‘positive’ and use these spaces while people feel relatively uncomfortable in space which are ‘negative’ and such spaces tend to remain unused” (Alexander et al., 1977, p. 519). The perception of the user of what is deemed as positive and negative is, however, based on the architect’s success in achieving an easily reversed figure-ground relationship. As a result, the project was designed while considering both interior and exterior conditions in order to avoid leftover exterior spaces considered as “negative”. This leads to more of the spaces being used by the users and less spaces being seen as residual, unwanted spaces. In addition, creating defined spaces through a suggested boundary creates a more inviting and clear space while the opposite leads to a vague and unwanted space (Alexander et al., 1977, p. 519). In fact a sense of enclosure, even a suggested one, created through the use of alignments and carefully placed volumes and planes can create “a feeling of security” especially in “smaller outdoor spaces – gardens, parks, walks, plazas” (p. 520). This is thought to go back to our primitive instincts of wanting shelter even within the comforting womb of Mother Nature. Consequently, it is essential to find a balance between open and closed space when creating a building for the human scale in order to satisfy our primal instincts as well as to satisfy our increasingly more demanding modern lifestyles, which require fully enclosed spaces.
5.2 Natural interventions through courtyards and baths
The project seeks to satisfy this duality and tries to find a balance. This is namely demonstrated through the expansive courtyard spaces where nature is present through trees and views to the informal part. It is also observed where the built environment makes a dramatic yet comforting statement of protection and care, aligning with the “feeling of security” previously discussed. This theme of nature and architecture, collaborating together, to create a safe haven is the main motif of this project. This is also seen from the north side, characterised by the desert, where the sand penetrates the project through erosion, thereby creating defined sand baths (Figure 8) where people can immerse themselves into the hot sand; this has been proven to have, since ancient times, therapeutic and physiological benefits. Excavated underground are also thermal baths, which continue with the theme of nature and architecture as one entity (Figures 7 and 8).
Through the conscious intervention of nature in our architecture, we can create comfortable spaces for people to resort to away from the bustling cities. Nature has an incredible ability to provide us with feelings of security and ease our minds. It is imperative that we view landscape, not as an additive tool, or as an afterthought to architecture, but as a tool that has the ability to bridge the increasing gap between our bodies and minds through its physiological and psychological benefits. The project, Asylum: A Place of Refuge, seeks to provide a safe haven for people away from the stresses of everyday life. Developed in a context where nature’s supreme powers reign, the architecture itself neither seek to overpower the beauty nor to undermine the crucial role of the landscape, but on the contrary, it seeks to collaborate with it in order to create a unified design which reflects the ability of both the natural and the built environment. This is considered by the author to be a crucial factor in resolving the rising mental health disorders people are subjected to. As we lead increasingly more demanding and technologically filled lives, I believe that the spaces we live and work in should also include and be based on this conscious dialogue that enhances our quality of life.
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The author would like to thank the support of the author tutors at the American University of Sharjah, Professor Michael Hughes and Architect Fernando Menis during the creation of the architecture project, and also to CAUMME PAUMME for offering the support and opportunity to share the authors’ research and project. Finally, the author would like to express sincere gratitude to family for their unconditional support and encouragement. A special thank you to the authors’ sister for going through the authors’ drafts and providing valuable insights.