“From the beginning it was important to understand that this building was going to be receiving people who were in varying degrees of distress. Much architecture is brutal and angular – even aggressive. We, therefore, had to guard against using shapes or materials, with unpleasant connotations.”
Paul Hyett, architect of FfT building 🡢
During a recent tour of the Freedom from Torture 🡢 building in London, I was re-minded of the concept of trauma-informed spaces both by our host Sonya Sceats (FfT CEO) and by co-visitors from Refuge 🡢, the charity for sufferers from domestic abuse.
Trauma-informed spaces are those that in their design and use are aware of associations that certain colours, materials, objects present may have which can act as triggers for (often psychological) trauma. It is a primary aim, for organisations like FfT and Refuge, in design briefs as well as in their management and use of their spaces, to create environments that avoid incorporating such triggers.
Anyone who has read writers’ evocations of particular places (Ovid 🡢 or Huysmans 🡢) will understand what intense associations particular characteristics of an environment can inspire, affecting imagination and accentuating mood for both good and ill.
Informed or Dis-Informed
Architects seek to design meaningful spaces that have such emotive qualities, so it is difficult when we are warned to take heed of the potential negative impacts certain lighting conditions, spatial constrictions, colours, acoustics or textures may have, especially when these considerations may need to extend to the design/ arrangement of spatial hierarchies and territories within an organisation.
Paul Hyett considered architectural psychology in these terms when designing the FfT building, as he explains in his recent article in Design Intelligence quarterly (2022/3) 🡢. Here he calls for “a better appreciation of how space, light, furniture arrangements, scale and the interrelationship of spaces — one to another and inside to outside — might affect experience and exchange, mood and performance.”
Who do these spaces value? Who do they privilege? Are we to edit out anything within them that has potential to harm or offend (e.g. a fountain) to be on the safe side? Does this mean we are only to pursue ‘safe and bland’ in our designs?
And what about in spaces used by dementia patients where these very, often provocative, features can as easily act as the vital bridge that reconnects them to us?
Can we agree, even after proper consultation with users, on clear typologies, shapes and materials that are universally beneficial, definitely healing?
Perhaps another way would be to design environments with the best intentions of avoiding the worst mistakes and connotations, such as repetitive dead-end corridors with claustrophobic rooms, institutional colour schemes, status-conscious furniture arrangements, writing on the walls! Get them ‘roughly right’, but allowing enough ‘looseness’ (and budget) for,
on the one hand, adjustment and fine-tuning in use,
on the other, active engagement of the organisation with their own expertise, such as cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT), that can then address the trauma triggered. An unfortunate association whilst causing genuine distress may nevertheless be of diagnostic benefit.
The fountain installed to soothe pressured staff and calm victims of thirst and arid punishment, can also provoke a survivor to reveal waterboarding as the cause of their anxiety, but only where there is also the trust that their carers will be on hand to address a re-opened wound.
Hospitality is such a strong concept to have in mind when designing caring spaces as it can discharge the potential difference between carers and those they care for (as well as within the caring team/ MDT themselves). As architects we value spatial variety and contrast, offering in our buildings a diverse range of both public and private, immense and intimate, light and dark, rich and austere, open and closed spaces necessary for the different conversations and therapies that allow the organisation to pursue its caring purpose. We must nevertheless avoid re-enforcing toxic hierarchies and power dynamics, by reflecting them in the situations and settings we create for the buildings’ users. Recently the concept of hot-desking (where applied genuinely top to bottom) has gone some way towards diffusing possessiveness, fief-building, obstructive and exclusive practices, which can be damaging within organisations, as well as be intimidating to the people they are supposed to serve.
However, this can also lead to staff feeling lost within the workplace, and less enthusiastic to return there now that the possibility of working from home as an alternative has been fully established.
If teams or co-workers within an organisation can gather around hospitality hubs, whether for chats or meetings, then these conversations can be had on a much more equal footing as colleagues, rather than in someone’s office, at their desk, on their terms.
This thinking has been at the core of our approach when designing the spaces of the CARE (Centre for Awareness and Response to End of Life) building for St. Christopher’s Hospice 🡢. Here we have striven to create spaces - whether foyer, seminar room, coffee point, library - that place patients, families, medical professionals, social workers, visitors on an equal footing, in the same way that true hospitality offered and accepted places hosts and guests.
Knowledge is power, so we are told. The traditional classroom environment, serried ranks of those who know little overseen by one who knows a little more, has long been an obsolete arrangement for workers and managers in the post-industrial adult workplace, yet it still persists; as does the notion of the head’s study.
Recent thinking about the workplace, brought into sharp focus by the pandemic when the need for a workplace at all has been strongly challenged, has flown the idea that workers would prefer working environments that treat them as grown-ups, more like university campuses. Here, they remember feeling free, where they were responsible for directing their own learning, all they needed to know was available to them on the shelves of the library whenever they needed it. Here they were equal to everyone around them, their teachers were as likely to be their peers as their course-leaders or lecturers, they were among colleagues.
Many would like those collegiate environments to be replicated in the places they work; neither private nor domestic, but not authoritarian either.
What does this mean for the architectural design of spaces for progressive, egalitarian, learned and ethical communities?
Each architectural project is an opportunity to explore these questions and places that emerge will look more like a garden or a theatre or a workshop than a corridor or a courtroom or a cell.