Vital Signs: Architecture and health - an opinion piece by Emmett Scanlon

Recently, on that Sunday in Farmleigh, it was passionately, persuasively and potently suggested that as the institutions we once respected collapsed around us, the arts remain built on solid ground, undamaged, unbroken, thumpingly thriving, still vital to society’s well being. In other words, they are, now that you mention it, very well, thank you.

Some recent coverage of architecture in the media might suggest that the art of architecture is alive and well too, as we excitedly report the continued and hard won international success of our best Irish architects working in cities such as London, Cairo and Milan. However, most media interest has focused on the fact that the profession of architecture has been devastated by the economic collapse of our country, reminding us that architecture has become almost inextricably and indelibly intertwined with the now threadbare construction industry. Architecture’s pulse, I would suggest, has noticeably slowed.

Perhaps in recent years, architects have been more linked to the act of building than the art of architecture. Irish society’s focus in terms of our built environment in the last decade, has been on development and growth in an economic rather than in any other sense, and in quantitative rather than qualitative terms. Cemented to the building industry, commodified and marketed, discussed in the property more than any other pages, architecture has not been established as a distinct artistic discipline as clearly as we might have wished. Accordingly, and accepting that the arts have an essential, positive role to play in our daily lives, architecture is perhaps an art which has yet to complete the construction of a proper stage on which to play out this vital role.

Of course, describing architecture as an art is often divisive amongst architects, who may not necessarily consider themselves ‘artists’. Referring to architecture as an art may even appear contradictory when arguing for architecture’s positive benefits on our well being. There is a perception that to even discuss architecture as art is to make it more remote, more distant from our daily home or working lives, or it is to over simplify a complex and multifaceted profession. One could imagine however, that by aligning architecture with art, by beginning to discuss more deeply the place of architecture amongst the arts, we might shift our generally held view of architecture as a commodity and something that is only necessary for planning, legal or contractual reasons, a bonus to bolster an abstract economic value of a property. Our view might look up and out, back towards society and we might consider afresh the role that architecture – as one of the arts – has to play in the social sustainability of our built environment.

Architecture is based on immutable, tangible things such as light, volume, space, structure and material, and at its best, an optimistic and generous view about how we, as a society, might live. Our emotional and psychological well being is entirely and unarguably connected to the quality of our built world, and so using the best architecture to make our built world, should have the best effect on our well-being. To be clear, the built world is not out there somewhere, it is in here, it is the room in which you are sitting as you read these words. It is your kitchen, the garden, it is where you queue in line to pay your tax or buy a stamp, where you sit or stand all day while working, where you watch a film with friends. Whether we care to realise it or admit it, how we organise a collection of rooms together to make a building, how easy or exciting it is to use those rooms for their chosen purpose, how full of light and air they are, affects how you and I enjoy life, or enjoy each other’s company. Our social life is key to our well being and our social life is key to architecture.

The fact that considerable and significant work is being carried out in healthcare or other social settings in Ireland, work where art and architecture are often aligned in a restorative, nourishing role, indicates a strong belief, by those who know, in the social potential of art and architecture, in architecture’s ability to positively affect our well-being. In such settings, where we are often at our most vulnerable and fragile, the arts are being employed precisely and with purpose. Much work has been undertaken recently to develop design guidelines for our hospice buildings, where the significance of the quality of the spaces we occupy as we live each individual day, are brought sharply into focus. Projects whose sole purpose is to engage with those often ignored by, and on the margins of, society, such as the Sundial House homeless wet-hostel in James St, Dublin by Gerry Cahill architects, uses architecture strategically and in detail to restore some dignity to the lives of each individual who elects to use this place.

Our approach with regard to architecture and health though, could be wider. Our emphasis could be on the concept of health as ‘a state of complete physical, mental and social well being not merely the absence of disease or infirmity’, as defined by the World Health Organisation. To understand how this might happen, our priority must be to deepen our understanding of the social, emotional and psychological effects of our built environment via research. While these effects seem to be appreciated in healthcare settings, they are much less well understood in our day-to-day world, but it is in the day-to-day world that architecture thrives, its pulse quickening. Perhaps it is this ordinary, everyday world which can provide a setting and a stage for architecture to more precisely do its job, to deliver its lines, to play its part in contributing to our well being. It is certainly time to act.

Emmett is a director of CAST architecture and former project director at Grafton Architects, Emmett currently advises the Arts Council /An Chomhairle Ealaíon on architecture, and in 2008 project-managed a team which carried out research into Public Engagement + Architecture in Ireland on behalf of the Arts Council. In 2008, Emmett was a member of the working group on public awareness set up as part of the redrafting of the DoEHLG’s policy on Architecture and the Built Environment. Emmett’s current research interests continue to centre on issues of public awareness of architecture. A lecturer in Design at UCD Architecture for ten years, Emmett writes regularly for national and international journals, and is, with Sarah Cremin, Irish correspondent for A10, the European journal on architecture.

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