Michael W. Mehaffy and Nikos A. Salingaros
First published in Metropolis (metropolismag.com), 29 November 2011.
CC BY-SA Michael W. Mehaffy & Nikos A. Salingaros, 2012. Creative Commons
In 1984, the environmental psychologist Roger Ulrich made a startling discovery. In studying hospital patients recovering from surgery, he found that one factor alone accounted for significant differences in post-operative complications, recovery times, and need for painkillers. It was the view from their windows!
Half the patients had views out to beautiful nature scenes. The other half saw a blank wall. This was an astonishing result — the mere quality of aesthetic experience had a measurable impact on the patients’ health and wellbeing. Moreover — and this certainly caught the attention of hard-nosed economists — because the patients stayed less time, used fewer drugs, and had fewer complications, their stay in the hospital actually cost less.
|Experiments by Roger Ulrich showed that a simple view out to a natural scene conveyed a range of measurable health benefits to recovering patients.|
What mechanism could explain such an effect? One main proponent of biophilia, the noted biologist Edward O. Wilson, hypothesizes that we human beings have spent most of our evolutionary history in natural environments, and we have evolved to find good (i.e. healthy) environments pleasurable. Aesthetics, in this view that is increasingly accepted by scientists, is not some arbitrary experience, but our sophisticated biological ability to detect what is likely to be good for us. There’s a sound reason why the ripe tomato, glistening with dewdrops, looks beautiful to us, and the rotten meat looks ugly and disgusting.
Another way of understanding the importance of biophilia is as a transfer of comprehensible environmental information through a neurological process. Our neural system evolved in response to external stimuli such as the information fields present in the natural environment. We instinctively crave physical and biological connection to the world, and we do so through the mental processes that have evolved over hundreds of thousands of years of life within nature.
|Christopher Alexander’s Fresno Market, California — a place of people, foods, vegetation, and natural tile and wood frameworks.|
Note that this “nourishment” is not simply a drape of green aesthetics, or, say, fake windows made of photographs. Research shows that those tricks quickly cease to have any biophilic effect. Rather, it seems we crave a deep and genuine aesthetic/biological connection to the natural context of our world. To be effective, the structures of our designs have to elucidate this real structure — not put on a kind of aesthetic costume.
|Many of the best-loved and well-used public spaces, like this one in Oslo, contain splendid examples of biophilia, including vegetation, water, and natural forms and materials.|
But when we conduct research into the evidence for biophilic properties in our environment, we find something striking: much of post World-War II design is of two types — either (i) explicitly anti-biophilic (e.g. brutalist concrete surfaces with the grayness of death and devoid of fractal structure, glass curtain walls, shiny metal surfaces, etc.); or (ii) it has a weakly biophilic aesthetic veneer, merely draped over mechanical production buildings (think of fake wood grain, “cultured” stone, etc.). Where the aesthetics tries to be more genuine, expressing its true mechanical roots, it typically becomes anti-biophilic. In fact, disturbing evidence is now emerging that many designs are subtly degrading the quality of life of their users at best, and actually making them ill at worst. What is going on?
Those designs often emphasize the conscious experience of dramatic, attention-getting characteristics, at the expense of the intense and geometrically complex “background” characteristics that shape the important daily experiences of residents and users. The attention-getting features are those of industrial technology and tectonics, which up until recently has been geometrically primitive: simple lines, planes, cubes, and cylinders, structured into dramatic, attention-getting compositions. These geometries are generally very different from the complex organic forms of nature, and of biophilia.
|Monotonous repetition is anti-biophilic. Nature never produces empty repeating modules on a macroscopic scale. Boston City Hall. Image: Kjetil Ree.|
One thing is certain. Biophilia reminds us that, whatever our acts of culture and humanity, we are in the end living creatures too, and an evolutionary part of the biosphere — and we had better start acting like it.