Core Conversations: Healthy Architecture

The best buildings to live or work in are rarely the tallest or shiniest.

True architectural ambition should take us beyond projects that look strongest on page, screen or in portfolios. We want places that ease our life, that make us feel good, because architecture also has a social function – to keep the occupants of buildings, healthy, happy and invigorated. How can architecture recalibrate this balance and put human behaviour to the fore? Architecture that is designed for warmth and intimacy, often adorned with plants and tactile touches and a mix of textures, textiles and homely flourishes, will result in an upshot of things considered and comfortable places that make us feel contended.

We have moved on from sterile clinics to centres that blur health, hearth and home

Green spaces are also key to creating buildings and cities that promote health and utility. Urban design and landscape architect should encourage us to make the most of our rooftops to grow food on, and consider plants and green walls for their merits. Architecture should make us feel at home – particularly when we shut our door at the end of the day, we often feel alone in spaces that are clinical.

The modern movement was a kind of revival of those classical ideals of a healthy city

The Roman architect Vitruvius wrote of the importance of site, light, the winds and the waters; a house was not an object to be imposed on the landscape but a dwelling working with it. Modern houses, of a variety of sizes should feel connected to and ‘at home’ in the city. Developers often pursue statement buildings or see projects as a measure of affluence or progress – architecture is reduced to its monetary value rather than its social worth to the people that live and work within it.

Pierre Chareau's Maison de Verre, one of Modernism's pivotal spaces, stuffed into a Parisian courtyard, was built for a gynaecologist. It is a truly odd mix of consulting room and private apartment in which the technics of obstetrics, the machines and chairs, the shiny tools, speculums and surgical lights begin to dictate the interior language in which architecture's relation to the (female) body is made eerily manifest.

History navigated successive waves of hysteria about the health of our cities, the condition of our homes, the future of buildings. From panics about plagues and fire through the moral repulsion against the Victorian slums, the history of architecture can seem like a series of reactions to health crises embodied in buildings.

Epidaurus was a total landscape of wellbeing, built around a health centre dating from the third or fourth century BC. It embraced temples, clinics, houses for sleeping and dream cures as well as an athletics stadium and of course, a theatre for cultural, spiritual and physical catcharsis. The views out to sea and the awe-inspiring landscape were as much a part of the healing process.

The understanding of what makes a healthy architecture has changed radically. What used to be about hygiene and health is now more about psychological wellbeing. Thinking carefully about the health and happiness of those that call these building home is key to creating meaningful architecture and making our cities, better places to live.