Rethinking health and well-being in architectural design as a mindful individual and social movement

The current societal shifts in health, culture and politics positively urges us to rethink health and well-being in design and architecture. With the current lock-down situation, we are unable to physically travel between the places of work and home but have to constantly shift our mental state of ‘resting’ to the state of ‘working’. We are neither able to gather physically as a community but the use of virtual technology and social media has brought us closer to each other’s homes and spaces of living.

Lack of enough movement could be the first concern for many of us, particularly if we live in a relatively small sized apartment. This urges us to rethink the concept of design and ‘function’ and our everyday rituals. We are now spending majority of our times at home and squeezing in other activities such as work, exercise, leisure, relaxation, etc. So, the conventional spaces of living room, kitchen study room, bedroom, etc. and their spatial relationship should also be rethought to be able to accommodate these newly introduced activities. This is while the integrity of the aura of these ‘functions’ should be mindfully maintained. We also now have the opportunity to include different cultural rituals of living, working, cooking and eating in the re-configuring the planning of our buildings.

Design, movement and mindfulness have been the focus of my architecture practice and research in the last couple of years. Mindfulness is the awareness of the present moment, the overall state of being; the state of the mind and the physical body.  I suggest that this concept could be a rich guide in rethinking how the form and the planning of the building can accommodate a new spectrum of activities through the lens of movement. Movement in the form of human spatial embodiment is an important pillar of mindfulness, which connects the mind and body and regulates between the two. It is also the centre of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program by inducing a state of awareness.

Lack of enough movement is a main concern for many of us, particularly if we live in a relatively small sized apartment and have to work in front of out computers for long hours. Movement and its different forms is in the centre of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program (MBSR) to induce a state of awareness (Mills and Allan 2000). Traditionally, movement is often considered solely as a formal attribute of the building or reduced to the notion of circulation and physical access.

At M00-tion studio, I aim for a mindful approach based on Motion and Emotion. We use design elements that could create horizontal and vertical motion in the space (e.g.’ staircases and ramps). For example making the most of vertical spaces in the ramps and staircases as transitional living spaces between work and rest and encourage vertical movement. Hence, the form becomes a spatial possibility for increasing people’s awareness about the state of physical and mental well-being.

We also aim to maintain the ‘feel’ or the emotion of different spaces. Using technologies such as AR/VR helps us to test out bodily movement and people’s feelings in various design configurations. This has led to the design of sustainable and creative spaces, focusing on the immaterial experience of space rather than the material architecture. M00-tion studio is also a collective cultural and social movement for us. We highly respect the importance of cultural specificity and exclusivity in design reconfiguration of homes, work spaces and heritage design interventions.

The Lockdown could also boost the ‘good’ feeling!

We are all starting to learn more about ways to better communicate virtually and have a healthier ‘life’ and ‘work’ ‘from home’ experience. It’s heart-warming to know there are many virtual ways to connect us with each other. But it’s also good to ‘feel’ the ‘feeling’ of not being able to have much physical and social interaction.

This self- isolation situation reminds me of a period of time when I had to spent long hours at home (not due to health reasons but for personal reasons), which wound up the most productive and constructive time intellectually and spiritually. In those few months I finally had the chance to materialize couple of my creative design ideas and also reflect more on social and cultural issues in society. I developed the design and research project on ‘Integrative housing, home, work, wellness’ based on the experience of having to live work and move in my apartment building. At the time in 2018, I never thought this would become the reality of our life in two years time. I actually got questioned few times about why we may have to anticipate in most of our activities from ‘home’?!. I was designing this project based on my experience of spending more time in contemplation, meditation and experiencing what I had not gone through previously. I could better identify with more vulnerable communities with sensitive physical or emotional abilities and reflect that in my design. For example I could better see and understand the life of an elderly who spends long hours at home or young single female households and their needs.

In my experience, one of the downsides of spending long hours living and working at/from home was lack of enough physical activity and movement, despite my routine daily exercise outdoor. This also led to establishing human movement as one of the important bases of this project, where people are encouraged to have different forms of movement inside and in the shared spaces of their homes (Please check for more info). These days with the closure of gyms and other wellness studio, it becomes really important to be mindful of our daily movement to reduce stress and stay healthy. In this project I also reflected on new or appearing modes of working, like working from home or co-working and how we could balance life and work with the spatial integration. This is reflected in the design models such as the micro housing concept design project (Dine-amyc) where vertical movement becomes the transition space between different functions of the house.

While the uncertainty during this time could feel unsettling and at times scary but we need to know that there is a reason behind every happening in life. We still have many options to boost the ‘good’ feeling from simply reading books to learning new skills, working on a creative project or just slowing down our pace by having more mindful moments.

Future of housing design and wellness; Movement and mindfulness

Wellness from the lens of everyday mind and body wellbeing takes the focus of health and wellbeing outside the hospital walls and into the places of our everyday inhabitation. The project on ‘Integrative housing; Home, Work, Wellness’, brings the importance of wellbeing in the future of residential development to the forefront, but not through the archetypical lens of community gardens, gyms and wellness studios but through integrating principals of a mindful design. In fact this concept brought lots of creative potentials for me in terms of the design possibilities that could integrate alternative contemporary lifestyles in residential buildings, often considered as a straightforward typology of architectural design.

pic-1 housing
Integrative housing; Process Design-phase 1- vertical Movement

In trying to translate mindfulness as the awareness and consciousness about the present body experience into architectural design, I also got to understand its therapeutic impacts on stress reduction and improvement of life quality[1]. Stress and anxiety and its consequent physical problems is said to be the disease of the century. Practices such as bodily movement (in different forms) and meditation are important principals of mindfulness. Walking, for example, is a simple bodily movement that helps awareness of the body and reducing distraction and stress levels. But it’s important to understand mindfulness as an inclusive concept in terms of the awareness of the physical, mental and also cultural body.

The understanding of different historical and cultural rituals also gives us plenty of space for contesting the traditional European grid system and the ability to dream and play and appropriate our places of residence into our contemporary life style. For example, coming from a Persian background, sitting and eating on the floor is an important ritual, which gives me a unique bodily position and culturally grounding experience (I could identify even more with this later in my meditation and yoga practice). Recent housing trends like Co-living spaces are in fact inspired by traditional Eastern and tribal cultures, where a group of people with blood relations, used to live in a single household sharing a central courtyard. The co-living housing phenomenon has now changed our old perception of a ‘shared house’ as ‘students-only’ housing; instead we now accept more alternative lifestyles of many single professionals who ‘co-live’ and ‘co-work’ to feel more socially integrated.

As part of the Integrative Housing project, I also had the privilege of teaching a group of master of Architecture students for their thesis studio at Melbourne University. We were imagining the future of residential high-risers (above 80 meters tall) in the site-specific context of Fisherman Bend future development. The design incorporates new forms of life and work and cultural specificity in a vertical residential city using physical movement as a collective strategy to encourage mental, physical and social wellbeing. The idea was having an open mind about different needs of the real community; the hipster, the high-end and luxury (away from its absolute Western understanding of comfort) life-style and possibilities for various cultural rituals. It appears that following British colonization in Australia, our understanding of body, cultural rituals, community and luxury ( as an absolute instance of comfort) is being dominated by the Western culture. Consequently the ‘same old’ British perception of geometry, form, function and communal facilities in residential developments shapes the perception of the ‘legibility’ of a building with traditional grid and axis system and the ‘veggie patch’ common spaces [2].

A selection of students’ works, Thesis Studio 9 at MSDX exhibition, Dec 19

In this studio we were trying to architecturally interpret the recent lifestyle shifts and cultural specificity in the future design of residential buildings. The aim was to reflect this in the building form and the design of apartment interiors and shared spaces, challenging the sameness of cubical buildings and the rigidity of the grid system. I was also hoping for students to explore  how human movement can form the building movement and not vice versa. Our explorations also suggested new typologies of shared spaces, such as vertical circulation as a meeting point or a vertical jogging or walking track in a highly commercial context. This also led to proposing new measures and possibilities for architectural standards, e.g. designing for more flexible and transformable architectural structures, where the space is not necessarily designed for the placement of conventional Western furniture but allows different bodily engagement with surfaces and the floor.

Having a rich multicultural community in the studio helped the exploration of creative ideas. It is amazing to have a culturally diverse group of architecture students, with their unique cultural background and experiences and interpretation of community in the Australian context. Yet, I was hoping to probe few questions by the running of this studio; how ready we are in accepting and applying such creative ideas in the context of Australia?! Whether we still consider the grid and axis building system as a more resolved design regardless of the specificity of the site and the brief? And is the grass of unconventional design with progressive ideas and building forms greener on the other side of the world? When are we going to actually translate the richness of multiculturalism and rituals of ‘home’ by allowing our creative students to freely present their ideas without fearing about their legibility?

I hope the attempt for answering these questions takes us closer to the design of a mindful residential building.

[2] While it is positive to see new models of residential development, such the importance of ‘the common’ spaces, but most of these models do not focus on design innovation but are majorly a financial model.

Reflections: learning from teaching another exploratory master of architecture design studio; archi-fashion lab

I came back to teach another exploratory design studio on Architecture and fashion with a multi-layered socio-cultural theme last semester. It was a wonderful experience to take on another exploratory journey with students and my colleague, Adam Peacock, a creative designer and a consultant, and to encourage students’ critical design thinking to develop creative design possibilities for the future of architecture practice. After being involved in real-world projects for a while, it was inspiring for myself to loosen up and test out creative ideas in my own design practice as well. It was also quite invaluable to have Adam along in the studio during the conceptualization of the projects.

The evaluation of exploratory studios and moderation of the outcomes in comparison with other studios with more traditional straightforward briefs is often a challenging task. I find it important to briefly reflect on the process and the final evaluation of the outcome of the studio with the hope that we could develop future methods for a fair moderation of students’ works across different studios. The wide range of options in interpreting the themes of studio in the first few weeks led to a diverse range of design concepts, where each student sensitively developed a unique theme. It was rewarding to see how they identify their design strength and weaknesses through doing the weekly exercises. This was aligned with my original aim to move away from a classic ‘fashion and architecture’ and look at the underlying socio-cultural phenomena instead of looking at fashion and architecture purely from a formal, material and structural point of view.

As always, the challenge was mainly in the phase of transforming these unique ideas into an architectural project, which was meant to propose possibilities for the future of a retail store looking at themes such as experience economy of the senses and movement and ideas of sustainability and identity. Anchoring the projects in the contextual specificity of the site, looking at the current alternative practices of retail design, highlighting the importance of structure and design detailing were tools that really helped in realizing the concepts in more real-world context. The use of technology (VR) was another helpful strategy, particularly for projects with more focus on immaterial and experience-based architecture. You can see more details about the process of the studio here: https://archifashionlab.wordpress.com/

The progressiveness of the proposed possibilities for future programs and typologies of the retail store was impressive. At the same time, this uniqueness may lead to design layout and programs, which does not necessarily exist in the current practices of retail design. This distinct difference between such approaches and outcomes compared to other archetypical architectural programs makes the moderation of the marks challenging. Perhaps, the clarity to be able to identify the specificity of the studio as a concept-based, a process-based or a product-oriented brief and what matters most in the brief is the key for a fair assessment. This will then probe questions such as; how much do we rely on the aesthetics of the outcome, the richness of the design thinking, the feasibility of the project, the detailing of the design? These and many more questions are inquiries that I believe should be considered in the writing of the brief, the reviews of the process and moderation of the final marks.