We explore the direct relationship between design and wellbeing, identifying key elements from WHY projects which comfort, uplift, and inspire
Why do some spaces just feel “right”? We all have our own version of feeling in sync with our surroundings; a quick callout around the office identified feel-good spaces such as treetop sunrooms, garden sheds, bay windows with inset seating, breakfast nooks, open wood mezzanines, and mud rooms for storing hiking boots, shells, and odd rocks.
The reasons for being attracted to certain spaces are inextricable from personal histories and memories. That said, there are certain recurring qualities which characterize the spaces we’re drawn to again and again—spaces which balance a sense of shelter and open prospects, providing the individual with a source of protection while simultaneously connecting to something larger and unknown. As architects and designers, our role is to shape the conditions where people from all walks of life are free to be themselves, securing comfort while sparking opportunities for new actions and ideas.
Every project offers a new model for personal and collective flourishing, and we asked WHY’s Creative Director, Kulapat Yantrasast, and Director of WHY Landscape, Mark Thomann, to share examples of particular design features which spark a feeling of wellbeing.
“Architecture starts with the act of sheltering, providing a sense of safety and a feeling of being protected and embraced. At the Chiang Mai House the roof is that sheltering sky, protecting inhabitants from the tropical sun and the monsoon rains. The roof extends downward to embrace the walls on south side, shielding the rooms from direct sun while opening up to the river and gardens on the north side. The roof plane reaches down and lightly touches the ground, creating the sense of an all-encompassing element from earth to sky, like a warm sheltering blanket or cocoon.”
“It’s clear that the natural world is the source of human wellbeing—and part of the irony of designing for wellbeing is that we’re working to restore people to the basic rhythms and growth patterns which should be integral to daily life. When designing our feather garden for the Chaumont-sur-Loire International Garden Festival, we wanted to show the ways that design solutions are readily available in the natural world; the cloud-like canopy harnesses the insulating, watertight, and UV protective qualities of feathers, and the garden is planted with edibles such as artichokes, blueberries, and viburnums. It’s a place of sanctuary, suggesting that our source of shelter is already with us—for as long as we take action to protect it.”
“Natural light is central to the wellbeing of humans and animals—it allows us to connect with the movement of the sun, the moon, and the changing seasons. For art and artists, natural light elevates the planes of seeing and making. This was a key consideration when designing the Pomona College Studio Art Hall: the Painting, Drawing, and Mixed-Media studios all have full north-facing windows and skylights for the consistent quality of light which is crucial for making art, and they also provide views of the mountains to the north.”
“In residential spaces, natural light uplifts the spirit and mood, allowing people to feel at ease and anchored. In our design for the Venice House, natural light is introduced via the three-story staircase atrium that links all levels of living spaces, providing a soaring vertical core which illuminates the space throughout.”
“At EPACENTER in East Palo Alto, we designed the art studios around a courtyard which serves as a community plaza and garden as well as central event space. Each studio is equipped with windows and skylights to minimize the need for artificial lighting, while cross ventilation and projecting roof planes dramatically reduce the need for air conditioning. The plan for cross ventilation has proved particularly relevant in light of the pandemic, removing the need for contained corridors and allowing fresh air to circulate efficiently. The overall atmosphere is one of health and ease, with plenty of natural light, breeze, and easy access to the exterior courtyard”
“As part of the Rees Ridge Park project in Toronto, we’re currently researching design methodologies for sustaining functional forest ecosystems in urban environments—so called ‘microforests.’ The architectural ridge formation is designed to shield the park and the waterfront from the busy expressway, and the presence of a forest ecosystem will significantly clean the air and restore the health of the soil. That said, park management practices don’t typically allow for the full cycles of growth and decay which characterize a living forest. If wellbeing and wildness are interlinked, how ‘well’ are we truly prepared to be?”
“The Venice Beach House is essentially a pool house, designed with water and nature at closest proximity. Water is so integral to our lives—our bodies are water-filled, and so the sense of balance, flexibility, and flow are all within our sensory systems. Water intrinsically connects our eyes and our senses to nature and to our own identity as physical beings.”
“Rees Ridge Park restores the connection between Downtown Toronto and the waterfront, actively mitigating noise pollution so that visitors can fully relate to the presence of the lake. We modelled the experience on a visit to the Scarborough Bluffs, the iconic cliffs which rise above Lake Ontario a few miles north of the project site—as an interface between land and water, the Bluffs create layered habitats for countless native species, and we’ve designed the planting for the Ridge on the same principles. The relationship to the water defines the life on the land, and that as true for human beings as it is for bank swallows, geese, and egrets.”
“The design for Marciano Foundation is a layering of multiple facets of history, from the building’s past as Masonic temple, to when it was used as events venue, to its current use as contemporary art space. The strategic layering and careful juxtapositions allow the new to stimulate the old and the old to anchor the new.”
“In designing the outdoor amphitheater for Edinburgh’s Ross Pavilion and West Princes Street Gardens, we wanted to see what would happen if we allowed the architecture to be subsumed within the landscape. The locally-sourced sandstone seating is modelled on the crags of nearby Castle Rock, and the stepped structure of the theater is imagined as a geological formation in its own right. There’s a degree of mimicry and playfulness to this of course, but that’s true to the spirit of the outdoor theater–arguably, we’re at our healthiest and happiest we’re fully aware of where we stand in place and time.”
“At Frieze LA, we designed the central hallway-corridor to be wider at the front and to taper backwards towards the back of the structure. This allows the space to feel open and welcoming when visitors arrive, decreasing any sense of crowding or compression. The widening hallways allow the galleries and the art to be more visible from the entrance experience, allowing for easy and clear orientation as visitors catch sight of the different spots they can visit. When people feel comfortable and free, they’re encouraged to wander and explore.”
“The ballet gardens on either side of the Tchaikovsky Opera & Ballet Theater in Perm are designed as a natural extension of the flowing routes of access which connect the theater to the waterfront via the valley. The meanders are modelled on structures of choreography, but they’re also intended to follow the lines of the earth itself, referencing the inwoven layers of mineral deposits which constitute the geology of the region. When imagining how visitors might circulate through and around the building, we were interested in what lay beneath the surface of the site, as much as what was to rise above it—even a simple pathway should be somehow linked to a wider context of motion and change.”
Flourishing takes many forms; every design is site-specific and user-dependent, and there is no singular recipe for wellbeing. Each of these design elements came about through close collaboration with a client, reflecting particular desires and personal interpretations of what it means to thrive—and even if you don’t have an architect on hand to realize your ideals, it’s still worth taking the time to identify the design elements that you personally value.
Whenever you’re feeling particularly peaceful, joyful, or productive in a space, we recommend taking a moment to check in and ask yourself “why?”—is it perhaps due to the quality of light, the spatial proportions, the framing of a view? Noting down these details over time, you’ll start to shape an architectural self portrait of patterns and forms—a kit-of-parts for your personal definition of wellbeing. Whether an imaginary capriccio or the framework for a future home, there’s something inherently motivating about knowing the spaces that just feel “right.”