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Places of the Soul

Architecture and Environmental Design as a Healing Art

by Christopher Day

Architectural Press 2004, ISBN 0 7506 5901 7
309 pages, price 13.99
First published 1990; Second edition 2004
Many black and white illustrations

In Chapter 1 of Places of the Soul the author, Christopher Day, asks how much good design is worth? He says it can increase land values, but there are other reasons for this. On the day I received this book, it was announced on the news that houses in the catchment area of a good school were worth several percentage points more so several factors combine to increase the price of land values. But Day suggests that 'monetary cost and soul benefit are less easily compared' and his book explores these ideas.

Day is, rightly, a great advocate for the undeniable benefits for green open spaces in cities and around housing; these spaces can be enjoyed by everyone of all ages and abilities. However, unfortunately in our money-driven society with escalating house prices, just finding an affordable home is the driving force for many, let alone finding one with trees and grass around it. Additionally, in this commercial world there is a conflict between green space and the need for high density building owing to population pressures.

The author states that the subject of the book is 'how design and construction can bring health rather than illness' and how architecture affects people and places. If more consideration was given to that aspect of building it would probably bring great benefit to people with disabilities of all kinds.

He also stresses the need to conserve energy and our resources - even in wet UK, do we actually need two or even three bathrooms in every house when water is becoming a scarce commodity? What we do need is better designed bathrooms and fittings which are accessible for everyone.

Day points to the benefits of vernacular architecture which has its roots in the 'climate, materials, social form and tradition' of an area. William Morris, one of the towering figures of the 19th century, would have agreed with this as he was a great believer in respect for place and the use of the correct materials. The Arts and Crafts Architect, W. R. Lethaby, talked about styles and colours quarrelling with each other if too many different ones were used in a room; Day brings this argument forward when he says colour can be used functionally with the appropriate colours for the activity of the space and Rudolf Steiner's principles are quoted to support these ideas. It is unfortunate that these principles are not more widely used and the question has to be why not? It probably all comes back to where we started - commercial interests and drive to make money. The benefits of designing with these kind of thoughts in mind would have great advantages, not least in reducing costs to the National Health Service by better health in the community. It has been shown that people in hospital recover more quickly if they are can see trees and the sky from their beds. But the costs are not considered overall and come from 'different pockets' and it will be a long time before this happens as a general principle.

Day stresses the importance of listening to our natural surroundings - not just the sounds but the rhythms, moods and endless changes. An environment is constantly changing and he believes we need to appreciate this and be more in harmony with it. This will help to lead us towards what he called 'nourishing the soul'. Do we need this more than ever before? This is a debateable question: does each generation think that the quality of life was better in the past? Do we think that children are less disciplined today that they were? Read history and we discover that the same problems have existed for hundreds of years; this is fascinatingly demonstrated in How to do it - Guides to Good Living for Renaissance Italians (Rudolph M Bell, University of Chicago Press, 1999).

There is no question though that most environments today are very noisy but are most city environments noisier than in the past? We read about the noise of the iron-rimmed wheels of horse drawn vehicles and the clatter of the horses hooves on the cobbled streets. The difference perhaps is that the rural areas would have been very quiet, without the constant hum of traffic in the background as there is now. It therefore follows that there is much to recommend what Day calls a 'life-dominated soundscape' with vegetation, water and other natural sounds making up part of the landscaping and also helping with the way-finding for people who are blind and visually impaired. In the places we have been without motorised traffic, such as the Greek islands of Hydra, the sound is quite different and enhanced by the clarity. Perhaps, though, the inhabitants get as tired of the donkeys braying at dawn as we do of the city centre traffic. He illustrates 'the semi-protected world of an arcade', an idea we can fully endorse having enjoyed the arcaded streets in Italy, particularly Bologna. They would be especially useful in the damp and windy UK.

Many of the concepts that Day puts forward are not new, only the technology has changed - the use of solar panels for instance. Here he is quite right in advocating their integral design with the building instead of being the add-ons that they usually are. He points to the efficiency of building around a heat source - an ancient idea which makes very good sense, but one, along with many others, that have been overridden by commercial interests in the housing market.

On the design side of the book, I would have liked the captions of the photographs to have included the name or place of the building or landscape. It would have been good to have seen more photographs of good examples other than by the author.

The real problem posed in this thought-provoking book which makes much good sense, is how to translate these concepts into reality. Faced with a housing shortage, lack of building land and tight budgets and commercial interests having a strangle-hold on the market, the answer is not a simple one.

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