SEVILLE / December 15, 2022


Since February we have published eight posts in this blog, dedicated to explaining what Healthy Architecture is all about. It has been very satisfying to see the degree of interest and follow up that the successive instalments have had. In them we have shown how, based on various contributions and disciplines, a new paradigm has been consolidated in the architectural discipline that not only combats the pathogenic problems of buildings, but also stimulates the presence of assets that favour and benefit human health in buildings and cities. A model whose attention is focused, in a special way, on the physiological, cognitive and emotional influence of spaces on people. The series has had an eminently practical focus, with the presentation of examples built over the last thirty years, a decalogue of criteria and five basic points.

However, by the way, we have left for the end the task of theoretically explaining how the architectural project faces this recent paradigm. The aim of this final coda is to map the new contemporary landscapes that are taking shape and to show the innovative avenues of research that are opening up to the architectural discipline.

Undoubtedly, architecture’s problems are marked by the circumstances of its time. Now these difficulties are caused, among other reasons, by environmental deterioration, energy efficiency or the gap caused by the silent digital revolution. They all affect people’s health and well-being. In order to solve this growing complexity with solvency, it is necessary to think of architecture more as an enquiry into its own limits or frontiers, rather than as a practice aimed at solving contingencies. This requires a global and integrating vision that transcends the anecdote of detail, the resolution of specific difficulties or the latest regulatory requirement.

Architecture is not a sum of parts, it is not a set of aggregated solutions, nor is it built from technically codified regulations. Solving a potentially pathological situation in the building or designing intelligent tactile walls that interact with people may be magnificent proposals, but they alone do not make a good building, nor do they define its habitability. Precisely one of the difficulties of the architectural project consists of adequately integrating all the problems, prioritising the different responses and ensuring that the final solution has the rigour, coherence and precision that society demands. The added value of an architect is to give meaning to what is built, and this is where the project reaches its fullness and importance. In the capacity and quality of the project, to move from the abstract to the concrete, is where the power of architecture to move and give meaning to living spaces lies.

The growing social demand to make architecture more inclusive, sustainable and healthy makes it essential to understand the intrinsic nature of space, not as a void but as a physical, chemical and biological substance. Carbon monoxide pollution, the loss of the ozone layer or the increase in ultraviolet radiation are elements that can be used today to describe the space in which we live. The numerous radiations in the environment affect the endocrine and neurovegetative systems, cause vitamin synthesis and stimulate the production of enzymes or ferments. Light emission, the alternation between day and night or seasonal variations in ambient brightness also interfere with human metabolism and affect mood and circadian rhythms, acting on levels of glucocorticoids, cortisol or melatonin, among other hormones.

On the other hand, with the recent expansion of information and communication systems and, in particular, with the electromagnetic fields associated with electronic devices, light emitters or wireless networks, unexpected artificial dimensions are formed in the environment, shaping patterns of a landscape that is invisible. If the development of the glorious twenties of the last century was represented by the infrastructure systems of roads and motorways, a hundred years later it is these invisible networks that are defining the landscape of the environment.

Much more than concrete or steel, air, as a medium in which waves, radiation or gradients propagate, is the main construction material of the space we inhabit and in which we are immersed. J. Navarro Baldeweg, in his well-known exhibition “Light and Metals” (1976), reflected on the phenomenological nature of the interior atmosphere of environments. In the air there is a constant emission of compounds, gases or energies with ionised particles that continually modify and alter its content. There are energy fields in the air that configure a new type of space without the duty of representation. A non-representational space that nevertheless exists and acts by stimulating the chemical and organic mechanisms of people and influencing their well-being. The space of these fields is fluid, ethereal, emanating, radiant with no limits other than the physical deployment of energy. Therefore, air is also an element of the project.

The landscape is no longer formed by the transformation of various forms of matter or by its geometric structure. Place is no longer a formal designation of the territory and is no longer linked to its visible nature, as Herzog & de Meuron have demonstrated in several of their projects. Space, today, is becoming more abstract and the artifice to be designed by the architect is becoming more and more difficult, because it is invisible. But this does not mean that it cannot be worked on and manipulated by means of quantifiable and measurable parameters that must be quantified and measured.

The intersection of electric, sound, magnetic or thermal flows establishes a new, vibrant, abstract, uprooted, fluctuating geography. This landscape, like any place determined by a given amount of energy, can be measurable and drawn through corresponding emissions of electrical, magnetic or climatic energy. New landscapes are the result of capturing or mapping the environment through the data produced by the radiation of these flows. This gives rise to a new spatial dimension, a geography defined by parameters with various non-metric magnitudes that nevertheless delimit environments and irremediably alter and affect human metabolism.

This is the cartography of the new contemporary landscapes. Landscapes that are deterritorialised places, that provoke a redefinition of the body and its metabolism, because they establish a profound organic relationship, a physiological link between the human body and space. The environment is defined in them as a physical and cognitive stimulator of people, as well as a natural, sociological and cultural condition that interferes significantly in the basic and instrumental activities of daily life.

Architecture thus enters a field of physical action, without a strict formal function within the limits of space. Architecture becomes physiological, acting in the corporeality of the air and the human body, without intermediaries, like a force of the field, like the fire of a bonfire which, when released, unfolds the conquest of space and sets in motion various sources of energy, such as heat, light or wavelengths that are necessary and essential for the balance of people’s metabolism. The habitable place thus becomes a modified and modifiable environment, a field without precise limits into which the human body enters and in which its organs establish a physiological relationship.

This line of research has been explored over the last twenty years by several teams of architects, both European and American, generally with experiments and tests presented in installations mounted at exhibitions, biennials and shows. The authors of the High Line (2011) in New York, Diller Scofidio + Renfro (DS+R), explored in the Blur project for the Swiss National Exhibition in 2002 how the construction of an artificial atmosphere can encourage the use of the senses. Later, in Venice in 2008, they made an experimental montage, based on virtual reality, in which they analysed the sensations produced in a person by being locked up in a cell designed according to the crime they have committed. Their investigations continue with the installation Unspoken, presented in 2016 at the 3rd Istanbul Biennial, where they study the blushing process of people when they pass through an enclosure purposely designed to produce this emotion.

At the same time, Swiss architects Décosterd and Rahm propose the novel concept of Physiological Architecture, based on the principle that the phenomena that sustain life are constantly determined by physico-chemical conditions which, depending on their presence, absence or intensity, constitute some of the main causes that influence human habitation and well-being. This team is known for its experimental work on the intangible or invisible dimension of architecture, with research that has been carried out in installations and art room set-ups. First at the Arteplage at Expo 01 in Switzerland, on the beaches of Lake Neuchâtel and later at the MoMA in San Francisco. His installations, which have made a significant impact: Melatonin Room, Hormonarium or Paysages électromagnétiques, investigate the influence on the human being of different stimuli generated in given spaces. Philippe Rahm continues in this line of work with installations such as Diurnisme (2007) and Digestible Gulf Stream (2008). In the latter installation, he set out to imitate the physical principles of the Gulf Stream to create a habitable space based on a natural climate with changing atmospheric conditions, thus freeing it from the sophisticated and expensive technical solutions of artificial thermal conditioning.

In the experimentations described above, composition is no longer based on an opposition of heterogeneous elements arranged as figure and background, form and surface, full and empty space, understood as visual components; the compositional mechanisms are freed from one of the traditional methods of architecture, which consists of giving form to space through the design of its surfaces and volumes. From the previous experiences it can be extracted that the architectural project becomes aware of the need to work with the environment in which the human body is immersed, using parameters other than dimension, proportion, function or form.

As opposed to an architecture focused solely on a visual response, the understanding of space is approached from a phenomenological dimension, sensitive to the cognitive, sensorial, neurological or even chemical stimuli of human beings, as revealed by biology and neuroscience. Understanding the physical-chemical mechanisms that govern organisms implies a change in the way of thinking and understanding space and, therefore, in the ways of designing the habitable environment to make it healthier.

With this new perspective, the architectural project is not only directed towards the compositional, but also focuses on achieving an adequate cognitive and physiological reception of the space by the subject that inhabits it. It works with air as a material, with its weight, density and physical-chemical characteristics. Its aim is to bring about a change in the physical-neurological relations between the human body and the environment in order to improve, in a natural way, comfort and wellbeing within living environments. The aim is to act on air quality, not as an action aimed at correcting pathological or unhealthy aspects of buildings, but as an architectural act carried out on the raw material of architecture, which is space, considering it as an asset for health.

From this point of view, the project dispenses with conventional forms of representation: analogue, poetic, aesthetic or rhetorical, and begins to use organic mechanisms of relationship between environment and organism. Therefore, in order to create architecture, spaces are designed using not only semantic, cultural or plastic means, but also using alternative parameters that control the existing stimuli between space and body, so that the spatial environment is an element capable of stimulating people physically, sensorially and emotionally. The criteria described in the Decalogue of Healthy Architecture, published in issue VII of this series, point to the definition of healthy architecture as an element capable of stimulating people physically, sensorially and emotionally.

In the work carried out by the Healthy Architecture & City research group, aimed at investigating how to design for the absence of memory, we have been able to verify some aspects of the above hypotheses. As P. Valero-Flores has shown in his doctoral thesis, the use of architectural parameters, related to human physiology (orientation, lighting, climate control, sensory stimulation) and not so much to semantic mechanisms (function, form, use), have a notable influence on the domestic environments of people affected by Alzheimer’s disease, inhabitants who change their cognitive capacities in a relatively short period of time. The conscious use of these parameters in the architectural project makes it possible to control certain neurological responses and to design spaces that can be adapted and adaptable to the evolution of the disease and to the changing physiological, physical or social needs of these inhabitants.

This opens up an unsuspected and innovative field of architectural research, which can be extrapolated to the rest of society, and which links up with the experiments carried out in the physiological architectures described in this coda. By approaching the design process from this point of view, the project moves away from merely formal, visual or semantic components and recognises the corporeality and influence of space, beyond the metric and compositional intervention. The resulting architecture becomes more than a third skin, an inert envelope of a void, it becomes a stimulating, sensorial, cognitive and emotional environment. A changing, mutable space that reacts and is capable of adapting to different experiences according to the physiological or cognitive needs of people, as if it were an exo-prosthesis or an exo-brain. This is the challenge posed by the path we are following and which we continue to explore with passion and enthusiasm.


Santiago Quesada-García is Dr. Architect, Full Professor, Head Researcher of the Healthy Architecture & City group (TEP-965) and Principal Investigator of the projects ALZARQ of the Ministry of Science and Innovation and DETER of the Junta de Andalucía.

Post published in the IUACC Bulletin nº 159 of 15 December 2022


Image of the post:
1 and 4. Spaces designed to measure air quality, set up in the Neuchâtel Arteplage of the Swiss National Exhibition 2001. 2. Melatonin Room 3. Hormonarium. Source: Décosterd & Rahm: Décosterd & Rahm. Physiological Architecture, 2002