How can we combine architecture with psychology

Tanja Vollmer researches the influence the design of buildings and rooms has on sick people in particular. She studied psychology and biology in Göttingen, researched and taught at international universities. She was scientific director at the Ludwig Maximilians University Hospital in Munich for six years until she founded the Rotterdam design and study office Kopvol Architecture & Psychology in 2008. With the publication of the book "The Disease of Space", she laid the foundation for modern architectural psychology. A conversation about the complex interplay between space and psyche.

SZ: The Berlin draftsman and writer Heinrich Zille once said: "You can kill a person with your apartment just as much as with an ax." Her work aims in the opposite direction, towards healing architecture that reduces stress. In general terms, that sounds like the promise of wellness that is being presented everywhere.

Tanja Vollmer: I have experienced firsthand that there is often not much behind these promises. When I came to Berlin about a year ago, I couldn't find a suitable apartment and have been living in hotels to date. Their architecture rarely creates oases of well-being - based on the affordability level of a visiting professor. Rooms always have an impact on the people who are in them. That has been known for a long time. What that means in concrete terms has always been a controversial topic, mostly discussed on a philosophical-aesthetic level. Today, however, in architecture we can rely on findings from psychology, which have a new quality, which are exact because empirically proven on a sufficient database.

Doesn't architecture always look the same?

The expression of architecture creates different impressions with different people. Certain filter processes work for each individual. It starts with sensory perceptions, for example whether someone is nearsighted or has a red-green weakness. In the brain, on the other hand, there is cognitive and emotional filtering, which is where the personality comes into play. On the third level, cultural factors and habituation act. In our latitudes, for example, large windows are popular, which open up a view of the outside and let in plenty of daylight. People from southern cultures often cover up or cover up such large windows because intimacy in living space is important to them. Anyone who designs a house should therefore first know exactly who they are building for. This user analysis from design research is also becoming increasingly important in architecture.

Children, the elderly and the sick play a special role in this. Why?

When I stay in a less attractive hotel or when students sit in windowless lecture halls, the effect of the room is usually only marginally noticeable. Healthy, adult people are quite stable there. However, for a few years we have known that the effect is much more intense on sick people, as well as on children and the elderly. Broad studies show that the more insecure we are, the greater the impact the environment has on us. Cancer patients, for example, unlike their healthy relatives, perceive tightness and overcrowding as very uncomfortable. The less we feel safe in and with our body, the more vulnerable we react to unpleasant stimuli from the environment. People have a strong territorial perception. Our own body is our most intimate space. From there we take possession of the rooms around us. This can be seen, for example, in the fact that when we choose our seat, for example in the seminar room, we usually choose the one we have already sat on.

Can a misconceived hospital affect the patient so make you sick?

Yes, that can happen. Waiting, for example, stresses people. Especially when they have physical complaints and then perhaps expect a result that defines their future state of health. In such situations, you want a place of retreat that conveys a little security and security despite this uncomfortable situation. Instead, patients usually sit in some corridor in front of the conference room. This spatial situation increases the stress. This in turn increases the discomfort and reduces the doctor's attention to important information. That in turn increases the stress. It is a doom-loop. Another point: it has been the norm for parents to stay overnight with their sick children in the clinic for many years. But then everyone sits close together there, nobody has a place to retreat. This also harbors complications and potential for stress, as we now know from studies. Such effects can now perhaps be taken into account in the new building.

But what about a renovation in an existing building?

In existing buildings, of course, there are some hurdles to overcome and compromises to be found. But there is more going on than many doubters initially feared. It is important to get everyone involved around the table and then to answer the question: What do we need and what do we want? This is where change management is needed. For the university clinic in Freiburg, for example, we designed a new room concept. The preparatory talks alone lasted three months. There are now family-centered areas - on an area of ​​around 600 square meters! In order to gain this space, all those involved first had to name which - mostly small - rooms can be dispensed with here and there. Then the remaining rooms were viewed through different glasses, centered and remodeled. There is usually space in the building; In the head, however, the space usually first has to be created. In order to create something new in the existing building, you have to say goodbye to old concepts and leave room for creativity - of course only to the extent that afterwards architecture and supply concept go hand in hand!

They also say that restructuring individual buildings is not enough.

With the supply-intensive aging of our society, we are facing a major socio-political, economic and ethical challenge. The architecture will play a far-reaching role in this. The five pillars of the SANKT model should not only be taken into account there, but in all areas of our life: self-confidence / self-worth, autonomy, normality, control and drive. Health care buildings will merge with new forms of living, forms of living with new urban supply structures and supply structures with new prevention-oriented functions. Typologies as we know them to date will die out. The first interdisciplinary round tables, so-called health labs, are already discussing this development.

Are there specific models for the city of the future?

In the health labs, health politicians and scientists, architects and town planners, psychologists and medical professionals gather their know-how. When it becomes clear, step by step, where it should go, the users' right to have a say, their participation in the design process and the scientific evidence of an effect of architecture on health will become more important. The need orientation will replace the need orientation. Architectural psychology, with its comprehensive understanding of the interactions between people and the built environment, will make a significant contribution as an instrument to the development of sustainable solutions and innovations. The role of the architect himself is becoming more and more complex - with in-depth knowledge of human psychology.