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December 28, 2009

Building a Healthier Humanity

by Tommy Manuel

Health is one of the most wished for gifts during the holiday season, both for ourselves and others. It’s often accompanied by the wishes for prosperity and happiness, but health, it’s the one thing that in many ways influences the realization of those other two wishes. Unfortunately, there’s no universal formula that if we all just applied would ensure optimal health for everyone. There’s just too many variables; genetic differences, behavioral variations (such as physical activity and dietary habits), physical handicaps, emotional dispositions, economic irregularities, cultural tendencies, and environmental conditions.

On the other hand, our efforts to grant that wish of optimal human health to everyone is happening on some level in each of these areas. It’s happening through research at the smallest coded level of our DNA, through the expanding fields of human behavioral science, through technological inventiveness that compensates for failed or damaged human parts and processes, through political and social reforms policies, and through environmental remediation and protection efforts. But, what about our cities, our buildings, the places we live, work, play, and rest? Sure, we’ve seen advances in sustainable materials and construction processes, and there’s little criticism found in using these when it comes to creating healthier indoor air quality and reducing the amount of raw material and energy necessary for their production. Advances such as these only have a passive impact on our health though.

Not everyone though thinks this is an acceptable limitation of our built environment. Architects Arakawa and Madeline Gins have been preaching, and practicing, a radical and controversial theory that our buildings and cities should not only optimize human health, but they should also strive to make dying a thing of the past! That’s right, if Arakawa and Gins had their way with architecture – and ultimately its influence on mankind – you and I wouldn’t have to die.

Interior, Bioscleave House, Arakawa & Gins

Arakawa and Gins have built a body of work – books, buildings, paintings, and poetry – on the conviction that it is “illogical (and arguably unethical) for an ethical system that values life not to see mortality as fundamentally unethical.” Building on this, Arakawa and Gins propose that our buildings should be of an architecture of “precision and unending invention” that “function as well-tooled works of equipment that help the body organize its thoughts and actions to a greater degree than had previously been thought possible.”  For more in-depth reading on their thoughts about architecture and the human condition, go here (it’s far too much to include in this post).

Interior, Bioscleave House, Arakawa & Gins

Rather than dismiss Arakawa and Gins on what may be considered a hyperbolic proposal, it seems more valuable to challenge our established assumptions in light of their provocative call to arms against death through the use of architecture. In doing so, the way that we imagine, design, build, and use buildings could shift the relationship with our built environment from one that simply facilitates and shelters our activities toward one that actively works with us to improve and extend, but perhaps not indefinitely (who knows, though), our health and well being.

The provocation put forth by Arakawa and Gins isn’t without its share of supporting science, although be it indirectly. For example, scientists are studying how social activities in animals and insects influence brain structure. Discovering which social and environmental factors favor development in certain regions of our own brains could have radical implications for how we then spatially structure and design our environment. Research into people suffering from Alzheimer’s consistently points to increased physical activity in delaying and preventing cognitive degeneration. One study involving lab rodents demonstrated that Environmental Enrichment (EE) promotes structural and functional changes in the brain, including enhanced learning and memory performance. Another study using adult primates living in standard laboratory housing experienced structural and biochemical changes in brain regions important for cognition.

An environmental enriched room for marmoset monkeys, source.

Can we begin to examine the relationship between our own physiology and built environment through the findings in such studies? Might we begin to imagine our buildings, even our cities, as opportunities for environmental enrichment, and therefor as instruments for structuring human physiology? What we design and build does influence our very being. Architecture could then assume an integral role in improving and extending our health and well-being be?

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Yahya E. B. Henry

About Yahya E. B. Henry

Merging his passion for cities, real estate, tech and travel, Yahya is introducing the world to a new model of real estate development that draws from best practices around the globe.

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