CMU exhibit looks at buildings, health, wellness

Kurt Shaw
| Saturday, Sept. 22, 2012, 9:17 p.m.

A trip to any hospital, where patients, doctors and staff are subject to a myriad of maze-like hallways will likely make one realize that architecture plays a key role in any health-care environment. And in most cases, those mazes of hallways and the rooms they connect are anything but perfect.

The exhibit “Imperfect Health: The Medicalization of Architecture,” which opened recently on the campus of Carnegie Mellon University, examines these imperfections through the display of more than 30 different projects produced over the past half-century. Together, they show connections between health, design and the environment. Not just between health-care facilities in general, but the practice of architecture as it relates to health in general, in our cities and our environment as a whole.

Organized by the Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montreal, where the exhibit premiered earlier this year, it was curated by Giovanna Borasi, curator of contemporary architecture at the center, and Mirko Zardini, its chief curator and director.

Both curators contend that the issue of health is becoming more evident in the discussion of architecture as a practice. However, Zardini says, “We wanted more critical thinking about how architects are importing medical concerns into the production of contemporary architecture. So, we were a little bit skeptical and critical about the way it has become a dis-concern inside the practice of architecture today.”

To that end, Zardini says of this exhibit, “we didn't want to offer one solution, but to present the different ways in which architecture is dealing with the idea of health.”

“One is the traditional way, in which architectural is seen as a possible cure,” he says. Early examples of this on display include photographs and reproductions of brochures for Sun City, an Arizona retirement community built in the 1960s for those 55 and older, and series of body measurement posters developed by Henry Dreyfuss Associates in 1959 after a study the firm did of anthropometric measurements.

What's most notable when looking at these posters is that the size and characteristics of our bodies today are quite different from those of over a half-century ago. Americans, in general, are much bigger and heavier than when the study was done.

To underscore this point, the curators have included several “Rabbit Chairs” for people to sit on while watching a video presentation. Designed in 2009 by Japanese architects Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa (aka SANAA) as part of a larger installation for the Serpentine Gallery in London's Hyde Park, these chairs have become popular in Japan for their lovable shape, which looks like bunny ears. But they are much smaller than a typical American chair. Here, in the gallery, one of the original Japanese models sits among several larger, noticeably wider, examples the firm had made to accommodate American proportions.

“Other projects deal with the idea that landscape or architecture could be more active in repairing the environment,” Zardini says. For example, “In the Air,” a web-based visualization tool designed by Madrid architect Nerea Cavillo in collaboration with C+ arquitectos, aims to make visible the microscopic and invisible agents (i.e., gases, particles, pollen, diseases, etc) floating in the atmosphere above three cities — Madrid, Budapest and Santiago, Chile.

Through continual web-based data feeds, visitors are able to see how the air above the city performs, reacts and interacts with the rest of the city; in effect, blurring architecture with the atmosphere.

“Other possibilities are not offered, rather presented with the idea that we are to take care of the way that we live,” Zardini says. One of those possibilities, Zardini says, is using “proper space” to create healthy environments.

Among the concepts presented that address this idea, perhaps the most direct is “Speleotherapy.” Otherwise known as “salt therapy,” speleotherapy is the use of salt mines, caves or other forms of exposure to salt air in the belief that there is a health benefit for those suffering from respiratory diseases. A photograph from 2009 titled “Breathing In” by Kirill Kuletski shows just that, people sleeping in a salt mine in Solotvyno, Ukraine.

Through this exhibit, both Zardini and Borasi argue that, ultimately, what is needed in our society is the “demedicalization” of architecture. That is, to prevent it from becoming too mechanical, predictable and focused on a cure for what ails us, as opposed to being focused on care.

“The title of the exhibition already suggests that there is not a solution,” Zardini says. “Architects cannot really give an answer. But there's also the idea that any answer given by architects is sometimes targeted towards a specific (segment of the) public, like taking care of the issue of obesity. So, if you would really tackle the issue of obesity, you would start to change codes in the building or start to think about how stairs are very important and so on. But then, the risk is that you don't think anymore about people that have other physical challenges, such as using the stairs. So this is the idea of imperfect health. We cannot provide the right solution for everybody.”

Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at

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