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In Harmony With Nature's Blueprint
A New Path To Healing Environments
By Jain Malkin
Interior Expressions, February 2000
Nature's geometry reveals itself in elegant simplicity and infinite intricacy. It's forms, textures and patterns hold abundant wisdom that we intuitively recognize. Consider an amethyst crystal, a twisted grape vine, or the scales of an angel fish. We are genetically hard-wired to connect with these designs, for our bodies are part of nature's composition. Consciously or not, the connection, and the comfort that it offers us, is deep and transforming.
As artists and designers, when we understand and apply the dynamics of nature's geometry, we gain powerful new metaphors, images and sensations. We find new vocabularies of line, shape and form that can make interior architecture a catalyst to reconnect spirit and space. That's a long way from a potted plant and fish tank in a waiting room.
Architects have become adept at introducing nature into health center lobbies, usually an atrium, but examples of it in the treatment setting are rare indeed. Our ultimate goal in designing healing environments is to reduce stress; appropriate strategies should be employed throughout the institution.
Too many of today's treatment facilities are lethal weapons aimed at dulling the senses and compromising well-being. When we enter a nursing unit with the clutter of housekeeping and linen carts or face dead-end corridors and the glare of highly-polished vinyl tile floors, and the pallor of fluorescent lights, we tend to put on blinders and shut down our senses. In so doing, we disconnect mind from body, and flatten our spirits.
Few areas of environmental science have been studied as thoroughly as the effect of nature on humans. As diverse as these studies are, in terms of their populations of subjects and the specific aspect of nature being studied, the evidence is clear that humans have fairly predictable physiological and emotional responses to nature. According to the Biophilia Hypothesis, developed by Harvard researcher Edward Wilson, humans have a genetically-based emotional need to be linked to nature. The movement of leaves, cloud formations, or wind currents on the ocean provide just enough stimulation to prevent boredom, but require little effort to experience and appreciate.
Our sensitivity to the most subtle modulations of temperature, water flow, wind direction, and sound; the surge of adrenalin when we sense danger-all have been richly encoded in the human brain since before recorded history. Throughout our evolutionary past we have depended on our senses for survival. Just as important, we subconsciously rely on nature's forms and forces to cue our behavior and state of mind.
At Scripps Memorial Hospital in La Jolla, California, pre-operative anxiety runs high for patients undergoing cardiac catheterization. They are concerned with both danger and survival. During the procedure they are sedated but awake. They watch a video monitor as a catheter is being threaded through an artery in the groin and makes its way toward the heart. Although no doubt frightened, the therapeutic benefit of nature in the treatment setting is a greatly calming influence.
Patients entering any health care facility may be tense and fearful. They
quickly pick up non-verbal cues from the built environment. Consciously or subliminally, they sense the value system of the care provider. These first impressions are powerful. Psychologists tell us that forming instant impressions of new surroundings-quickly identifying nurturing or threatening environments-was a primal evolutionary survival mechanism. The response we hope for is comfort, and relief of anxiety, in a familiar environment of natural forms.
One of the most wondrous of these forms is the fractal. It is a geometric figure that makes order out of the seeming irregularities of wiggly shorelines, tree bark, or lava flow. Fractal patterns are iterating and "self-similar," with the detail replicating the whole. In a fern frond, they are nature's copy machines, making miniatures of itself that make even smaller versions of its basic structure, over and over again.
The field of fractal geometry, pioneered by the mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot, offers a designer a lush palette of fascinating shapes that elicit a sense of immediate intrigue. Mandelbrot based his work on that of French mathematician Gaston Julia whose Julia sets are mathematical patterns derived by repeated iterations of polynomial equations. Fractal dynamics appear in our nervous systems and the internal brainwork of our neural functions. It is another reminder that we do not exist outside of nature, but that every human molecule is nature. As the naturalist John Burroughs wrote, "We are rooted to the air through our lungs and to the soil through our stomachs. We are walking trees and floating plants."
The patterns and shapes of the natural world, which have long been assumed to be random or routine, are now known to follow orderly principles. Scientists are seeking hidden laws of life that lie deeper than
DNA. Beneath the genes lies the pulse of the physical universe-a world of infinite subtlety that can be described only through mathematics. The work of the late visionary zoologist D'Arcy Thompson finds dazzling mathematical patterns in the organic world of tiger stripes, butterfly wings, and peacock tails.
Human anatomy is the universe in microcosm. Our proportions have always been used as a system of harmonic ratios, measurements and geometry. A fathom is the length of an average arm span. The ancient Egyptian cubit is the length of the forearm. The length of the human face is equal to three lengths of the thumb. The face is used as a module to measure the rest of the body. Simply put, we have a primal need to find harmony between the parts and the whole. Structural spaces that respect human proportion and scale give a sense of health and wholeness.
One of the most effective ways to achieve this harmony is the Golden Mean. It is the ratio found when a line is divided into two unequal lengths so that the shorter relates to the longer as the longer relates to the whole. Numerically, it is a ratio of 1 to 1.618. It is a constant ratio found in nature, from pine cones to triton shells. If you cut an apple in half, you will see a star pentagon of seeds inside the Golden Mean. The fruit has the same geometry in its seeds and blossoms.
The Golden Mean has been known throughout architectural history to evoke a sense of healing and well-being. If you take a section through the center of the face of the Great Pyramid of Cheops, the relationship between half the base and the full side is the Golden Mean. The same proportions are found in Rome's Pantheon and Philip Johnson's Glass House and the Taj Mahal; there are endless examples from every age around the globe.
Similar principles inform Eastern philosophies that have long influenced the configuration of healthy environments. Ancient Chinese assumed that nothing in the universe remained static; stars moved and valleys shifted. Their art idealized balance and tranquility within the ebb and flow of nature's forces. They sought to imbue their bodies with Chi (vital energy) and their homes with the energies of sacred geometry.
The interest in geomancy, or Feng Shui, shows the recurring yearning for calm, safety, and order through the placement of physical surroundings and spiritual icons. Whether a Tibetan Wheel of Becoming, crop circles in the English countryside, or the medallion window of a gothic cathedral, people of all cultures search for the mysteries of nature's blueprint.
Labyrinths have been built for thousands of years in almost every religious tradition around the world. Usually circular, the form is being reintroduced as a healing tool in retreat workshops, hospitals, and parks. A world-wide labyrinth project, called Veriditas, has sparked a renewed interest in constructing the form for ritual walking meditation and healing.
Life rarely draws straight lines. As Mandelbrot said "Clouds are not spheres, mountains are not cones, bark is not smooth, and lightning does not travel in a straight line." From wrapping coils and loops of spirals, to crescents and corkscrews of animal horns, nature enthralls with rhythmic whimsy and delight. Celebrating the fluid shapes found in nature is the rooftop garden of Harrison Memorial Hospital Ambulatory Surgical Center. Look at the heart of a daisy. Like the ever-increasing volume of the chambers in an ethereal nautilus shell, the little florets increase in size as they move away from the center. The oldest and largest florets are on the periphery, and the whole composition is an expanding spiral.
There is a world of spirals. In the Archimedes spiral, named for the Greek physicist, each successive whorl is the same width as the one before. Spiders spin them, then fill the gaps with spokes. If you examine a snail shell, you will see an equiangular spiral. Each coil is wider than the the preceding coil. If you were to draw it, all the lines from the center of the spiral would intersect with the outer wall at the same angle. In art, scrolled spirals have appeared all over the world since Paleolithic cave drawings. According to psychologist Carl Jung, it is an archetype embedded deeply in our collective unconscious. One of the best known examples of architecture based on the spiral is Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim Museum.
Nature constantly surprises. Consider the sphere, a symbol of wholeness and continuity. It can be the orb of our eye or a planet, moon or soap bubble. It is a perfect balance of inward and outward forces and the most economical shape, with the greatest volume for the least surface area.
A helix is formed by repeating elements, with each loop curving identically to the one below or above. If you were to diagram an agave plant with a line connecting the base of the leaves, you would draw a helix up the plant's stem. The DNA molecules that carry our genetic information form a double helix; nature's geometry can't strike home any closer than that.
Compare the arteries that carry blood through our bodies to the branching veins of grape leaves or tributaries of a stream. See the hexagons of a honeycomb to find an ideal storage structure. Notice the staggered rows of corn kernels that nudge into the gaps of neighboring rows. Like pebbles on the beach, they tumble snugly together in a natural economy of space.
Nature makes the simple complex, and then simple again, in an ongoing dance of self-organization. We constantly seek out its patterns. Our eyes trace water's reflections, ripples on windswept sand, spikes on an artichoke, and the starry explosion of a mushroom. Without nature's patterns, shapes, symmetries and scale, patients in intensive care units are known to experience sensory deprivation, even hallucinations. Without doubt the brain requires visual stimulation to stay healthy.
The sensual stimulation of water is a transforming force and important therapeutic treatment. At the Saint Maurice National Hospital in Paris the water therapy pool is in a park-like setting, in a circular room. About two feet below its high ceiling, fabric is stretched tightly to form a second tent-like ceiling to absorb sound and eliminate echoes caused by acoustically reflective surfaces. The overall feeling of the space is gentle and soft, sensual and spiritual. Many patients using the pool are profoundly disabled, but the water returns to them the freedom of motion they so miss. Reflections of the glass wall on the water are spectacular as is the huge saltwater aquarium facing the pool.
To experience a harmonious healing space like the water therapy pool in Paris is to exalt in the connection between mind, body, and spirit. But wedding the natural world to the institutional world isn't always an easy fit. Rivers bend, curve and meander; hospitals are usually built with straight lines and right angles. We know that with superb design skills and good client communication we can create healing environments that boost the therapeutic effects of drugs and surgery.
There is no easy path to nature's blueprint, but we know the direction and have plenty of clues. . Diane Ackerman, in By Nature's Design, writes "Few things are as beautiful to look at as a ripple, a spiral, or a rosette. They are visually succulent. The mind savors them. It is a kind of comfort food from the wonders of nature's pantry." It is the designer's job to open the pantry door.