Nature, Art, and Beauty: Antidotes to Everyday Traumas

Beyond the visible, or how the visual can humanize our institutions

Entering a cancer clinic can be a jarring experience, especially for patients walking through the dark catacombs of a parking deck. But it doesn’t need to be so. The transition could be a very positive one, so Stephen Kellert  said at an east coast medical school last fall when his new film, Biophilic Design: The Architecture of Life, was screened there.

Recalling his walk from a 2,500-car garage into 55 Park Street, a new lab building in New Haven, Kellert depicted an experience of calm and uplift – ideal for people under duress while facing a health crisis: Opening into a wide, four-story atrium, the path takes patients into a space filled with sunlight, lush plantings, and colorful wall panels–from anonymity to the familiar; from the unnatural to the intuitive.

Biophilia – the connection between humanity and nature, or our innate fondness for the natural – is at the core of Kellert’s work in sustainable design and development. It is a complementary notion to green building, one grounded in our primordial relationship with nature. Sustainability makes us think about our relationship to nature, while biophilia is what nature brings to us: the physical comfort we need, and a reassurance we get from an environment.

More from Metropolis

The relationship between humans and the nature that forms us, has been pursued for centuries in the applied and fine arts: Architects and decorators have been bringing recognizable natural forms into the design of our buildings and places. Like a mirror, figurative art has served as a reminder of our own humanity and our place in nature. Using images of the human form and shapes found in nature, figurative art connects us to the Earth that supports our lives – and a potentially potent element of biophilia.

Though it is often thought of as reserved for the fine arts of painting and sculpture, figurative art can and should be part of everyday life–on any campus, office, classroom or quad. It can offer an explicit connection between the world around us, and the mission and use of our buildings. This can make figurative art – like biophilic design – a critical element in situations intended to nurture, support, and protect its occupants: hospitals, elementary schools, assisted living, supportive veterans’ housing, even libraries and lunchrooms.

Biophilia and figurative art as parts of the healing process certainly aren’t reserved for people in traumatic duress. Everyone can benefit from it. In fact recent research says that we continually need respite. “Post-traumatic emotional responses can arise from any number of everyday situations,” notes psychologist Doug Haldeman who studied everything from bullying, being unfairly treated because of one’s age or abilities, as well as experiencing micro-aggressions related to sexual orientation or race. “The insidious traumas in everyday life are often neglected or minimized, yet research tells us that the effects they generate can be serious,” adds Haldeman.

Like the prehistoric cave paintings made by hunters, figurative art provides both an outlet and a means of reflection. Whether as discrete works of art or incorporated into architecture as ornament, figurative motifs offer a reminder of our own humanity and our inextricable connections to each other. By alluding to the themes and ideas of the healthcare provider – air and water, sustenance, nature, open horizons, and the sun, among others – or by simply tapping into our biophilic nature, representational art helps us learn who we are, as well as about the world around us. And, again, it can connect us explicitly to the mission and use of the buildings we use.

Supporting good health, everywhere

Art is elemental to healing. In today’s world this is hardly reserved for acute-care environments. Consider our schools where children from traumatic home situations need to learn, but also need to feel comforted, protected, and inspired. This is true not just in grade school, but even in college common rooms and corporate headquarters. Plantings, water features, and artwork offer a special kind of nourishment and repose that has a quantifiable impact on those students, workers, and occupants.

Svigals + Partners. Fairfield University Dorms

Courtesy Robert Benson

A seminal study considered the “cultural preferences for figurative art in the healthcare environment” was highlighted by Kathy Hathorn, MA and Upali Nanda, Ph.D., in their position paper for The Center for Health Design’s Environmental Standards Council in 2001. The use of art in general has been widely shown to positively affect “patient perception of care and overall satisfaction.” The same study showed that regardless of such factors as race, “patient responses to figurative art depicting caring faces and positive body language were the same.” The groups studied also uniformly preferred representational paintings related to nature and natural landscapes, gardens, and flowers.

As with plantings and water features, imagery of nature and figurative art can contribute to restoration from directed attention, a stress-relieving activity in itself, as described in attention-restoration theory. It can make us think about being in a different place, and it can hold our attention and fascinate us. It can also create a “sense of extent” – such as being connected to the larger world – as well as the compatibility or resonance we experience between natural settings and human inclinations.

Though these may be documented benefits in caregiver settings, this kind of restoration can be useful at any time of stress. Where the art is integral to the building or space, it actively contributes to the nourishment that architectural and landscape environments can provide.

Svigals + Partners. Connecticut Center for the Arts and Technology

Courtesy Robert Benson

Get yourself together

Healing through biophilia and figurative art brings back together the disparate parts of ourselves, parts that become fractured by the stresses of modern-day life. We often use the phrase, “I’m not all together” or “I need to get myself together.” Art can be part of this gathering back together, of healing, and our healthcare designs must speak to that.

Healing for modern life is our starting point. And the green building ideals — access to daylight, fresh air, and nontoxic materials, and the like — are easy to provide. They give us protection, security, and comfort and, from the outset, a specific and valuable connection to nature, of which we are a part. They help reconnect us to the earth and to the cycles of days and seasons. That’s what makes us human, and the reinforcement of those relationships is an essential part of that healing we all need.

Figurative artwork and ornament remind us of our own humanity. The representational art we have used in our building projects has helped to bring to life the things we know and have learned – and bring them to life in a ways that is not simply expletive (as in reading a text) but that is also expressive. It touches more of the self than the work itself. It appears tha it’s not just the work of the building but also the expression of the building that is enlivening.

As Confucius said, “Tell me and I will forget. Show me and I might remember. Involve me and I will understand.” Figurative work in architecture invites that involvement, on as many levels as we can provide it. And it involves us by healing our physical and spiritual wounds, too.



Barry Svigals, FAIA, is a Connecticut-based architect, higher-education advisor, artist and collaborator. He is widely cited and recently co-authored the book Collaboration

Recent Projects