Architecture and nature as a cure for wellbeing

by Maria Giulia Marini, Epidemiologist and Counselor, Director of the Health Area of ISTUD Foundation (Italy)

Ancient Greeks did not separate the concept of beautiful (kalos) from the concept of good (agathos): beauty implicates goodness, vice versa the individual virtue spreads charm. Ethics and aesthetics blended, and could not be separated in the so-called kalokagathia, the ideal of the evolution of the human person.

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The beauty we want to address is that of architectural spaces, nature, and the environment with which we continuously interact. In her publication on Scientific American, “How Room Design Affect your Work and Mood”, Emily Anthes reports that in 1950 Jonas Salk was working to find the therapy for polio in a subterranean laboratory in Pittsburgh, but advances were slow, so to rest Salk decided to travel to Assisi (Italy), where he stayed in a XIII century monastery. There, he found the vaccine. Thinking about the factors that brought him to the anti-polio vaccine, Salk reported that he was sure to have been inspired by his contemplative life in a beautiful architectural environment. What brought Salk to find how to develop an effective anti-polio vaccine in an Italian monastery and not in his basement? Moreover, why do we recover faster in an aesthetically well-finished environment?

The researches of the team of Giacomo Rizzolatti (University of Parma, Italy) on mirror neurons can help in answering these questions. The activation of mirror neurons occurs both during the execution of actions and during the observation of the same actions made by others: furthermore, these neurons are near the Broca area, and so they deal with language. Researchers think that the skill to talk has evolved through information transmitted with gestural performances, and that the mirror system has been able to comprehend and codify/decode.

However, this “neuronal forest” has to do not only with the importance of words, of narrated language: neuroscientists of Parma identified that some particular neurons are active in the observation of other people’s behavior and environment. This might cause a close relationship between neurons, beauty, arts, and wellbeing. As summarized by Rizzolatti, to cast light on the linkage between mirror neurons and art, he and his team carried out experiments on sculpture, taking ancient Greek artworks and modifying their measures and size with an algorithm calculated by engineers. They showed them to the volunteer subjects, and observed what was happening in their brains by using the functional magnetic resonance: they demonstrated that in the human brain there is a synchrony between action and observation. Real ancient Greek artworks activate the brain more than the modified ones: they trigger the emotional area, precisely where the mirror neurons of empathy are located. Therefore, the mechanism that these Greek sculptors invented is not only the activation of neural circuits, but also the neuronal firing of the emotional center. Art reinforces the empathy of the observer, and can move some imitative process: beauty creates other beauty.

Ancient Greeks did know nothing about mirror neurons, but they discovered the golden section, the system of proportion that we find in Nature in shell valves, and in human figures, in the distance between our head and the navel, and between our navel and our feet. Let us think to the Discobolus of Myron, to Botticelli’s Venus: when we are in front of their proportions, we might calm ourselves, and eventually we are in a peaceful empathy with the environment.

If we always need harmony, beauty, and gentle words, this becomes truer when we are sick. Can a hospital be therapeutic just by architecture and environment? At the Meyer Children’s Hospital in Florence – the city of beauty – the answer is positive.

According to Anshen and Allen, components of the architectural team that worked on the upgrading of the Meyer Children’s Hospital, the concept of “therapeutic architecture” – adopted by the evidence-based design – leads the project from the entrance of the hospital, which constitutes the first stress factor of hospitalization. At Meyer, the glass arbor that gradually leads into the hospital twins and turns in the park – caring garden that contributes to the psychological wellbeing of little patients and their families. A comforting pathway in greenery leads to the spectacular entrance hall that constitutes a logical consequence of the planning value conferred to the contact with the surrounding Nature.

Once they can stand up and leave their hospital beds, children can play – in the huge game room, in the library, in the garden to plant seeds. There are many volunteers, and the school comes into the hospital, so children can keep up with lessons. Visiting hours are free, seven days a week.

Furthermore, the last partnership with Collodi Foundation made Meyer an extraordinary artistic exposition on Pinocchio. Artists illustrate one of the most known fairy tales in the world: in corridors and wards wind sculptures, paintings, photos portraying Geppetto (the doctor or the father?), the Fairy with Turquoise Hair (the nurse or the doctor?), Mangiafuoco (the disease?), and architecture of the hospital lounge mirrors the great belly of the whale. But it is full of light and colours.

Beauty exists, even in a public hospital.

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