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Thursday, Oct. 4, 2018 12:11 am

Architecture makes life better

 As a freelance writer, I enjoy writing about an eclectic range of topics – health and fitness, nutrition, museums, travel, advocacy, government, local businesses, community leaders, wedding planning, programs for kids, activities for seniors and interesting people, places and organizations. Recently, I was asked to write about two seemingly different topics: the Sacred Heart Convent Chapel and a Green Symposium about innovations in sustainable design. I did not expect to find something profound that they had in common.

I interviewed Sister Beth Murphy, communications director for the Dominican Sisters, about the upcoming celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Sacred Heart Convent Chapel(next page). It was my first visit to the chapel, which is stunningly beautiful and impressive. Murphy told me, “Spaces we occupy deeply influence who we are. This beautiful space has informed our life and prayer of the Dominican Sisters for the last 50 years.” Just two days later I was at the Green Symposium at University of Illinois Springfield, listening to the keynote speaker who is the founder of WORKSHOP Architects. He remarked: “The environments we create impact the lives of people in them.” He defines a socially fit place as “one that strengthens healthy relations and promotes a sense of equity, inclusion and belonging.” He delivered a compelling case that the environments we create through building design impact the lives of the people within them. I was struck by the similarity in perspective between Sister Beth Murphy and the founder of WORKSHOP Architects, the designer of the UIS Student Union. I have written previously about the science of awe and the profound impact that being immersed in nature can have on people (See Illinois Times, Capital City Senior, Sept. 15, 2016). A lot has also been written about the powerful impact of architectural design.

Collin Ellard is a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Waterloo in Canada who says he works “at the intersection of psychology and architectural and urban design and studies how your brain and body respond to different kinds of settings.” Ellard says psychogeography is “the study of the relationship between the places we move through in our everyday life and the effects those places have on our minds.” In 2017 he wrote a book, Places of the Heart: The Psychogeopraphy of Everyday Life. Summarizing his book, he says:

Our surroundings can powerfully affect our thoughts, emotions and physical responses, whether we’re awed by the Grand Canyon or Hagia Sophia, panicked in a crowded room, soothed by a walk in the park, or tempted in casinos and shopping malls. Places of the Heart explores how our homes, workplaces, cities and nature – places we escape to and can’t escape from – have influenced us throughout history, and how our brains and bodies respond to different types of real and virtual space. By investigating what science has gained from new technologies, the book assesses the influence these developments will have on our evolving environment and asks what kind of world we are, and should be, creating.

A report published in 2008 by the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment in the United Kingdom says:

“The quality of buildings and spaces has a strong influence on the quality of people’s lives. Decisions about the design, planning and management of places can enhance or restrict a sense of belonging. They can increase or reduce feelings of security, stretch or limit boundaries, promote or reduce mobility, and improve or damage health. They can remove real and imagined barriers between communities and foster understanding and generosity of spirit.”

Sarah Williams Goldhagen, an architecture critic who taught at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design, published a book in 2017: Welcome to Your World: How the Built Environment Shapes our Lives. She says, “Given what we now know about human cognition and perception, the built environments we inhabit are drastically more important than we ever thought they were.”

There is increasing scientific research on how the environment shapes us and our lives. See the two articles in this issue of lllinois Times (on pages 15 and 18) for a sense of how two significant but very different buildings in Springfield were designed to impact the people who would use them – the UIS Student Union and the Dominican Sisters Sacred Heart Convent Chapel. Then take time to consider how your home, work environment, community and spaces you frequent impact your mood and shape your life.

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