Toward an Architecture of Healing

Emily Nonko looks at several architects’ designs meant to promote physical and mental well-being.

The Contemplative Court at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington, DC, designed by Freelon Adjaye Bond/SmithGroup. Courtesy the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington, DC. Photo by Benjamin Sullivan.

A trip through the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), the newest Smithsonian Museum to open in Washington, D.C., is an emotional one. Much of the museum is situated underground with a history exhibit that unfurls as a cohesive timeline beginning with the Transatlantic Slave Trade and continuing through the Civil War and Jim Crow South up to the election of Barack Obama and the continued necessity of groups like Black Lives Matter.

When museum visitors emerge from the cavernous exhibit—breaking from the timeline of the past into present day—they enter into what’s known as the Contemplative Court. From a large, rounded skylight, a waterfall cascades down into a fountain below. Visitors can sit and listen to the steady stream of water or read quotes from civil rights activists engraved on the surrounding walls. “We wanted to create a space where you can rejuvenate, spiritually and physically,” says Phil Freelon, founder of the Freelon Group—part of the architectural team that designed the museum—and now a Managing and Design Director with the global architecture firm Perkins+Will. (The two firms merged in early 2014.)

The movement of visitors through the museum—and their resulting emotional responses—was of top concern to the architectural team. “When you’re designing these spaces with a complex and difficult history that you’re trying to honor and memorialize, you don’t want people overwhelmed by feeling like they’re either victims or perpetrators,” says Zena Howard, a lead architect on the project and the Civic and Cultural Co-Market Leader for Perkins+Will. “But you have to balance that against telling these stories honestly and truthfully…what happened happened,” she says. “Spaces like the Contemplative Court allow visitors to connect to that history, and then be able to decompress.” From the court, visitors then travel to the above-ground galleries, where light streams through the façade and exhibitions celebrate culture, arts, and achievements throughout African-American history.

The work at the NMAAHC reveals the intense design process that goes into creating spaces that need to do more than simply house visitors. Often, architecture must take up the responsibility of healing, wellness, or both—but to do this, architects must make conscious, engaged design decisions that, once manifested, often go unnoticed by building users. “It’s the challenge to simply design something that makes people feel better,” says Diego Teixeira Seisdedos, the project architect for the Maggie's Centres, a network of holistic wellness centers for cancer patients throughout the United Kingdom, often designed by well-known architects, including Zaha Hadid, Frank Gehry, and Rem Koolhaas.

Maggie’s Dundee, designed by Frank Gehry, at Ninewells Hospital, Dundee, Scotland. Courtesy Maggie’s Centre.

There’s a science that goes behind people feeling certain ways in certain rooms. Eve Edelstein, Director of the Human Experience Lab for Perkins+Will, studies neuroscience, architecture, and anthropology to understand how our brains react, and attach meaning, to various architectural spaces. The key, too, is to understand “what works for all people across all cultures,” she says.

On the upper floors of the African American History Museum, for example, she’s able to measure how the museum’s facade—an ornamental bronze-colored lattice—affects visitors’ brains. The firm relies heavily on existing research concerning our brain’s reaction to certain spaces, but they also use equipment—wearable, wireless sensors that track brainwaves or heart rates—“to measure sound and light responses for users in real space and real time,” says Edelstein.

The museum's latticework facade, designed as a homage to the ironwork crafted by enslaved African Americans and free people of color throughout the South, “speaks to culture, meaningfulness, and memory,” she says. From inside the museum, as light pours through the latticework, “you can’t quite see where the sky ends or light begins,” Edelstein continues. “That lighting effect won’t push the brain into any certain perception, so users can attach different meanings and emotions to the space.”

When Perkins+Will designed the Lake County Children’s Memorial Garden, in Tavares, Florida, Edelstein studied design features to best comfort parents who had lost children. “We created paths that begin with private spaces and alcoves—safe spaces to let your emotions run,” Edelstein says. “Then as you move into more open spaces, neuroscience shows that that kind of physical movement will change your mental state. You arrive to an open vista, and your senses are becoming more alert to certain effects like grass and trees moving in the wind,” she continues. “And we know that looking at nature, seeing and hearing wind going through foliage, often creates a calming effect.”

Nature and sunlight is a tried-and-true element that works in healing spaces. Oftentimes, it’s as simple as positioning a window “in the exact spot that light will stream out onto the kitchen table,” says Teixeira Seisdedos, of the Maggie’s Centre designs. Cee Cee Hodgson, founder of the c.c. hodgson architectural group, designs senior living facilities “focused on the idea of wellness rather than illness.” She says incorporating nature is key, especially in medical spaces—“it matters if patients have a view of nature from their rooms, and access to natural light.” She took advantage of a lakefront site for the Friendship Village of Schaumburg, a senior living facility in Illinois, designing a covered arcade and outdoor garden to “create a strong indoor/outdoor connection.”

Both Hodgson and Teixeira Seisdedos also emphasized the importance of designing for comfort within clinical spaces. At a facility designed for seniors with memory impairment in Ohio, “the goal was to make it as residential as possible, versus an institutional approach you’d find in another healthcare setting,” Hodgson says. “It has a very residential design of moving from a living room to a dining room…and this environment reinforces familiarity in memories to the past.” Similarly, each Maggie’s Centre comes with a living room, kitchen table, and library, creating “comfortable spaces to cry, or form friendships…a setting that’s more comfortable than a hospital,” Teixeira Seisdedos says.

Architects for Society’s design for the Hex House. Courtesy Architects for Society.

Other architects are tasked with designing for users who have gone through extreme trauma. Amro Sallam founded Architects for Society with several other partners in 2015 and the firm has gone on to design the Hex House, a low-cost, sustainable, rapidly deployable home meant for refugee camps. “In the first world, there’s a structure of client and architect, and you may be working with certain constraints, but those constraints are not life and death,” he says. “We make a shift that’s huge…we’re looking directly at the end users and asking them, how do you survive? What’s your biggest challenge? What would make your life better?” The Hex House was designed as “a home, not just shelter,” says Sallam. To design it, the team had to engage deeply with clients who had lost their permanent homes, some of whom had lived out of refugee camps for many years. “We don’t know all the answers,” Sallam says. “When we work with these communities we look to them to lead the [design] process.”

Sharon Davis, of her firm Sharon Davis Design, teamed up with humanitarian organization Women for Women International to design the Women’s Opportunity Center in eastern Rwanda. Many of the women the center was designed for had lived through the genocide and had experienced abuse or rape. “The classrooms [within the center] were designed as a circle so everyone could see everyone else as they were speaking,” Davis says. “We wanted it to be a healing space where the women could bond with one another.” While ensuring light and ventilation made its way in, “we didn’t want people looking out,” Davis says. “We didn’t want nature in the space. We wanted to women to have as much privacy as possible.”

Through engaging with the women, Davis included design details that wouldn’t be applicable to more traditional architecture. For example, people who have been through extreme trauma often find quiet spaces frightening, so design must be able to address that fear, and create the presence of comfortable noise. “Being present, open, and listening are the things that have mattered most to me in trying to be as helpful to the clients as possible,” Davis says. Although she notes, “Honestly, I feel like all space should deal with mental health.”