Studio Insight: Modern Life, Nature, and the Built Environment
Modern urban life can often be described as a daily series of stresses. Stress from both environmental and mental sources has been demonstrated to lead to anxiety, depression, aggression, and physical illness. Daily stress comes from distractions, worrying, behavioral constraints, unfavorable weather, or illness. These stresses build over time and can lead to chronic problems. The most effective long-term stress-reduction technique is through the restorative effects of the natural environment. In order to successfully function in daily life, attentional cognitive resources must be continually restored. Restorative environments may range from the complete nature of woodlands to the built environment of monasteries. However, the most successful restorative environments contain nature.
[spacer height=”20px”]Nature has been demonstrated to have positive mental and physical effects, but why does this occur? One possibility is the specific characteristics that govern natural forms: fractal geometry. In nature, forms are generated by recursive patterns. That is, natural fractals repeat a similar pattern at multiple scales to create ordered complexity. Even the structure and operation of the brain itself is fractal-based. For this reason, researchers have suggested that the brain is optimized to process the statistical characteristics of natural scenes. The brain may find nature appealing because its form is more easily interpreted and understood.
Fractal geometry is at odds with most current architectural trends, which consist of simple volumetric forms and thus deprives the senses in their constant search for meaningful information. The roots of Modern architecture lie in a desire to escape the baseness of nature and, by association, the baseness of vernacular building. By the late 19th century a newfound understanding of germs and disease led to a strong focus on cleanliness. The desire to be “clean” became one of the driving forces in Modern architecture. However, the push toward an architecture of basic Euclidean forms has reduced the visual complexity of the urban environment. As more people live in cities and away from nature, their lives increasingly occur within and around simple white volumes. Their brain, having evolved to process fractal geometries, cannot function adequately in such an environment.
[spacer height=”20px”]Before Modernism, vernacular building traditions around the world incorporated ornamentation and decorative elements that directly imitate objects found in nature. However, through advances in science and mathematics we now understand the underlying principles of the natural world. A certain amount of abstraction and flexibility can be achieved instead through understanding the nature of the fundamental structure of natural forms. A building based in fractal forms and a pattern of ordered complexity should provide a level of mental fascination necessary to become a restorative environment.
[spacer height=”20px”]In an urban environment, access to nature, and thus to a restorative environment, is limited. Architects must therefore determine methods to incorporate nature, or its underlying principles, into the site and even into the design of the building itself. These elements should be accessible, or at the very least visible, to users in need of cognitive restoration. Restoration offers the greatest benefits when all senses—sight, sound, touch, and smell—can be utilized. Environmental restoration reduces stress and improves mental and physical well-being, allowing for a more healthy, productive life.
Stephanie is an intuitive problem solver with laser like precision. She is also an excellent storyteller. Ask her about the time her dog ate a good portion of rendered grease from a food truck in the neighborhood!