Finding Our Happy Place

During his work to cure polio in the early 1950s, Jonas Salk was smothered by a case of researcher’s block so debilitating that he retreated to one of Assisi’s abbeys in Italy to recuperate. As he later recounted in a 1992 speech to the American Institute of Architects, the abbey’s serene lines, contemplative corners and sweeping spaces some how stimulated his imagination and seeded the breakthrough that would become the Salk Vaccine.

Architects, interior designers, philosophers and psychologists have speculated on the power of place and its effect on the human spirit for centuries. But it’s only within the last several years that the disciplines have joined forces, most notably in the 2003 inauguration of the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture by the San Diego branch of the American Institute of Architects.

The data they’ve collected corroborate most, if not all, of our intuitions. Here’s what we know: natural light and natural air stimulate productivity and creativity in children and at work; low light and noise barriers help premature babies develop aura land optical nerves safely; low ceilings promote fine attention, while high ceilings promote expansive thinking; and nature — indoors or out —calms us down and scrubs the air.

Now that designers are meeting “environmental psychologists” over blueprints, the world may soon understand the mystery of Salk’s experience. And with any luck, if this trend continues, all homes, work and play spaces will be as inspirational as abbeys. Here are a few bright ideas to look out for and cheer on.

(En)Lightening Workspaces

“I think one of the delicious things about my life is walking into my office," says Michael Lehrer of Lehrer Architects LA. To Lehrer, whose firm just won the 2007 Institute Honor Award for Interior Architecture from the American Institute of Architects, architecture is like music. It’s “about anticipation, procession, and memory,” he says. “You approach a place, you move through it and you have a variety of experiences in it.”

Lehrer wanted employees to feel good about where they worked. Desk spaces are oversized and laid out to emphasize individual and communal workspace simultaneously. Two giant bay doors cut into one wall allow light and air to pass through from the garden during the day. “We’re grounded because we have daylight,” he says. “We know what’s going on outside.”

Architect Deborah Richmond of Touraine Richmond Architects in Venice, Calif., agrees. “In workspace environments, it is a ‘best practice’ among architects to provide a democratic distribution of natural light and air, which are proven to increase productivity and reduce sick days among employees.” To accomplish this in her firm’s recent remodel of the offices of Los Angeles’s Natural History Museum, polycarbonate and drywall were interpolated with empty space to create privacy while also allowing air and light to filter through to the interior. They call it “the barcode wall.”

Street Trees — Seeding the Concrete Jungle

“The street tree world is a small world,” confesses Caitlin Cahill, a Ph.D in environmental psychology who teaches community studies at the University of Utah. But ever since graduating from City University of New York’s renowned environmental psychology program, Cahill has been diligently working to turn on as many people as possible to the importance of urban greenery.

“Research has shown that connections with nature have a relaxing effect on people and reduce violence,” says Cahill. Unfortunately for many city-dwellers, trees are the sole contact with nature they have in a day.

Cahill’s studies have shown that street trees grow better in beds together, not in single “tree pits,” which make them more vulnerable to neglect and vandalism. “Trees are not just a place you pass by or your dog pees on,” she asserts. Water and prune that tree. Kiss it. Make it yours.

Healthy Homes, Healthy Brains

Alzheimer’s specialist John Zeisel believes “neurodesign” has replaced environmental psychology as the most effective application of current research. A former sociology and architect double major, Zeisel, author of Inquiry by Design, is co-founder of the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture and also runs Hearthstone Alzheimer Care in Massachusetts. “Neurodesign,” he says, is “designing places that support the development and functioning of a healthy brain.” To create highly social, relaxing kitchens in several homes across the U.S., Zeisel teamed up with renowned kitchen designer Johnny Grey. “What we built into those kitchens is a place where people are facing outward into the living spaces so they can be aware of what’s happening,” he says. “We feel much more threatened by what’s in back of us.”

Living on Memory Lane

Like any good psychologist, Toby Israel, doctoral graduate of CUNY’s environmental psychology program and author of Some Place Like Home, invites her clients to recall defining moments of their childhoods. But instead of rehashing the particulars of old psychic wounds, Israel uses the memories to inform what she calls “design psychology” or “the practice of architecture and interior design in which psychology is the principle design tool.”

The Princeton, N.J.-based design psychologist has developed a nine-piece toolbox to help clients recollect childhood experiences of place, with techniques like the “favorite place” exercise, the “environmental family tree” and a “places-lived” timeline. “I help people get to their core, most authentic experience of their past home or past school,” she says. “I bring that back to consciousness and then use it to envision an ideal design they feel connected to.”

Recently, Israel redesigned the bedroom of a woman with breast cancer going through chemotherapy. She used subtle themes of sailing to represent a future endeavor — and that the woman would survive — and painted the walls cucumber green to help her “cool down” after chemotherapy.

Feng Shui and Vastu

With the new found research into the architecture of happiness has come a renewed interest in the ancient eastern philosophies at the intersection of well-being and place. Feng shui (pronounced fung-shway) is the Chinese “Law of Heaven and Earth,” a “science” of placement with the objective of promoting harmony in the qi (life-force) that flows between people and place. Vastu (pronounced vah-stew) is quite similar, only it hails from the Vedic tradition of India. As Ohio-based vastu practitioner Kathleen Cox puts it, vastu is like a yoga of space rather than a yoga of body, focused on harmonizing prana (Sanskrit for life-force).

“Feng shui is not really a spiritual discipline, but a metaphysical discipline,” says Simona Mainini, an Italian-educated doctor of architecture and Beverly Hills-based feng shui master. Mainini, author of Feng Shui for Architecture, is an advocate of employing feng shui techniques from the beginning, before a foundation is laid. When working with clients, Mainini considers birth dates, neighborhood orientation and building design. “When you put a roof on a building it’s like putting a lid on a pot,” asserts Mainini, who believes that qi is a dynamic, ever-changing force influenced by everything from people to water to planets and doorways. Rearranging a home with feng shui principles can make a difference, but the ideal is to start from the ground up.

There are three concepts central to the “yoga of the home,” says Cox, a 10-year vastu practitioner and author of Space Matters, recently named a top five home décor and gardening book by USA Today.The first rule is to align your schedule with universal schedules by getting up and going to bed with the sun. “We try to keep lightweight and low furnishings in the north and east — to create an openness — so that we can draw in the healthy early morning sun,” says Cox. Heavier, taller furniture goes in the south and west. Second is bringing nature indoors — plants, natural fibers, no synthetics. “Vastu is the first intentionally green science,” Cox says. And last, vastu asks us to “celebrate who we are and what we love” by surrounding ourselves with things that have meaning. “When someone enters our living room and we’re not in the room yet, we want this guest to get a sense of who we are,” she says. “The room speaks of us.”

Jamie Friddle writes from Seattle, where he balances the dark watery winters with frequent trips to a Russian sauna and the light of his happy lamp.

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