Jan Gehl, the Danish architect, author of the influential book Cities for People, and consultant to the NYC Department of City Planning, spoke recently at New York’s Center for Architecture. He focused, as he does in his public appearances, on the human experience of streets, with an emphasis on what we see at eye level. His is fond of exploring daily life in a lively, engaging, fun city, not just beautiful architectural plans. At the end of his talk, he asked, “What makes a great architect?” and answered his own question: “love for people”.
But Gehl’s reality is not widely shared by our profession. Underneath our professional sophistication, many of us have lost touch with people’s fundamental needs for health and well-being. We narrowly focus on buildings in the same way lighting designers focus on lighted surfaces; LEED professionals focus on environmental impacts; and energy consultants concern themselves with efficiencies. In the process, we all tend to ignore human factors.
A decade ago, as a practicing architect, I became passionate about lighting and human health. In subsequent years I followed the research and learned of the strong correlation between the two. More importantly, I saw mounting evidence that only daylight is100% healthy for people, that daylight can ease depression, boost energy levels, enhance alertness, increase satisfaction and performance. Daylight is a most dynamic system that changes daily and seasonally in spectrum, intensity, and distribution; it continuously changes the patterns of light and shadows with the passage of time.
These experiential factors are familiar to every human being. And science shows that our endocrine and hormonal production, levels of melatonin and cortisol, body temperature and cortical alertness intensify and decrease during the peaks and valleys of the diurnal cycle. After 250,000 years of living under the sun, our species developed in synch with nature’s rhythms. But in the last 125 years, as the technology of static electrical lighting has evolved, we’ve worked hard to destroy our connection to nature.
But this insensitive design is about to be fixed. Philips in the Netherlands now has a new program in light and health, so does Osram in Germany, and the Fagerhult Lighting Academy in Denmark started lectures on the subject. Europe has clearly embraced the idea of ‘living’ lighting modeled by nature, and is rapidly advancing to become the leader in this strategic field of light for human health.
Unfortunately in the US we continue to design static lighting environments, numbing our senses, disconnecting us from the notion of time and body functions. Our experience of being inside buildings is that of being encapsulated in flat light; surrounded by lifeless surfaces, exposed to the beams of several “suns”, trying to make sense of cognitive nonsense, and a clutter of shadows projected in all directions. What we see with our eyes contradicts our memory-stored images of nature, and fails to provide the natural feel of restorative environments. As a consequence, we close down emotionally. How, then, do we begin to transition to a more organic architecture lit up with a “love for people”?
Milena Simeonova is a licensed architect in New York who has used her research to develop biophilic lighting. Her projects range from corporate interiors, museums, hospitality, healthcare, and exterior façade, street, and urban solar lighting. She has worked with Roche and Dinkeloo, SLAM, Polshek, Gensler, Rafael Viñoly, Cannon, Urban Think Tank and many others. She holds MA and MS degrees from the Lighting Research Center, RPI, NY. In 2009 she visited Philips Lighting in the Netherlands and advised the company to “sell lighting for health, not only for watts.”