Tye Farrow: Architects serve public health and accelerate change

Tye Farrow. Image: Archive of Tye Farrow

Working at the intersection of architecture and neuroscience, Tye Farrow is a world-recognized pioneer tackling how what we create gives or causes health. With award-winning projects around the globe that enact salutogenic design – design that actively incites health – he is the first Canadian architect to have earned a Master of Neuroscience Applied to Architecture (University of Venice IUAV), has a Master of Architecture in Urban Design (Harvard University), and a Bachelor of Architecture degree (University of Toronto).

Natalia Olszewska: You’re the first Canadian architect who studied neuroscience applied to architecture in Venice. What pushed you in this direction?

Tye Farrow: It started with our practice, Farrow Partners, which involves work with knowledge organizations, health organizations, and value-based companies with a clear purpose.

Early in my career, I began understanding the relationship between architecture and its effects on people and health on different levels. Health, for me, is like a table with four legs. And its four legs represent different ways design impacts life around it.

First is design’s impact on the natural environment. We designed some of the first and largest LEED projects in Canada, of their typology. Then we began to understand design’s impact on our physical body. You may know the New York City Active Design Guidelines describing how buildings can encourage you to move and be physically active.

The third leg is architecture’s impact on social and civic health. Let’s look at the United States. Part of the issues around the Black Lives Matter movement and present inequalities is that the design profession was very good at separating and keeping people apart in the past. But we know that design can do the opposite too – which we saw in the urban interventions created during the pandemic.

Toronto Montessori School Bayview by Farrow Partners. Image: Archive of Tye Farrow

The fourth leg of the table is how environments make you feel and how they can make you feel better. We designed a cancer center about twenty years ago whose entrance felt like a tree-lined garden because of how it was designed structurally.

Initially, we got a lot of pushback because people thought it was expensive, especially the Ministry of Health, which it wasn’t. It was a publicly funded project. But at that point, I was sure our buildings could help create the conditions where people could flourish and heal.

Enriching Environments

Next, there’s an actual performance-enhancing ability of what is known as “enriching environments,” which can enhance our capacity to learn. When you look at studies on light or other qualities of learning environments, it affects learning performance. We know the same applies to healing environments.

Returning to how I arrived in Venice, I first stumbled upon Sarah Goldhagen’s book, one of the first popular books on neuroscience and architecture. Then, I discovered the Academy for Neuroscience and Architecture and the Neuroscience Applied to Architectural Design (NAAD) program in Venice.

I called the director of the program, Davide Ruzzon, and asked him to meet me and talk about the idea of enriched environments we have been working on. And that’s how I became a student again, while still leading our architectural practice.

For my thesis, I looked at Venice and the ways to solve some of its issues through a saluto-systemic approach to urban design. We started with what we called the “two floods of Venice,” both the water floods intensifying because of climate change and the flood of tourists putting strain on the city’s fabric.

Shaare Zedek Helmsley Cancer Centre in Jerusalem by Farrow Partners. Image: Archive of Tye Farrow

We looked at how Venice’s environment could be enriched and redesigned, and how its future could be preserved by creating an archipelago of new and existing islands with lower water levels in between.

We suggested using them for parks, food production, and other functions that would diversify from relying on hospitality. It would create economic, societal, physical, and  mind health.

And it was all based on the qualities of enriched environments tied to the theory of constructed emotion that is pivotal for us. It says that there are stimuli from the external world. They come in through all of our senses, and they’re interpreted. Then, through interpretation, we predict what to do and what will happen next. And that prediction is colored by things we’ve learned and experienced.

Creating Relationships With Places

We had both a psychologist and a sociologist on the thesis team. And during the project, we discovered that how we form meaningful person-to-person relationships could also be applied to describing how we form our relationships with places.

Meaningful personal relationships are often characterized by generosity, variety, vitality, authenticity, and hope. They’re natural and silent. They have solidness and intimacy.

In the same way, we can think about generous architecture, for example. We can look at the affordances it provides. Think of a door handle. You can either design it so that people intuitively know how to put their hand on it, and it feels good to do it.

We discovered that how we form meaningful person-to-person relationships could also be applied to describing how we form our relationships with places.

Or you can design one that people don’t know whether to push or pull – it’s not generous. Generous architecture is not only about giving more but also about doing more with less, about allowing the users to rearrange it, to take part in its creation – a generous design process.

On the other hand, just as you can have abusive relationships in your life, so can you have abusive places. Imagine a city street with narrow sidewalks, fast cars moving past you, boarded-up windows, and poor lighting. That’s not a generous place.

Compare it to a place you can comfortably walk through, feel the cobblestones, and hear your footsteps. There’s a bench to sit under a tree that creates a natural affordance of shade. There is a cafe you can sit in. You can hear the sound and the smells of freshly baked bread.

The York School Wellness Centre by Farrow Partners. Image: Archive of Tye Farrow

Working on these topics at the NAAD program suddenly opened my eyes to everything I felt intuitively about the spaces I created. But now, it all became very intentional.

What fascinated me was the concept of “positive ambiguity,” meaning a quality of space that allows our mind to be curious, explore, compare, and contrast. It’s a bit like the Rubin’s Vase visual illusion, where you either see two faces facing each other or a vase in the middle.

It’s playing with your mind, and your mind loves that. In architecture, we can mix forms, shapes, and different sensations to create a sweet spot where a building’s entrance draws us in and evokes curiosity and the desire to stay, linger, and play with the space.

Constructing Health

After finishing my studies, I started writing a book called Constructing Health that will be available for prepurchase in October with the University of Toronto Press. I wanted it to be accessible to architects and other people involved in the creation of the built environment, just as your goal with the Venetian Letter. It will be colorful, tactile, full of images, and it will smell great – it’s all important.

Content-wise, there’s a lot of research that is readable to researchers, and then there are more popular books, like Sarah Goldhagen’s, for a broader audience. I wanted to do something for people studying architecture or interior design to use as a textbook, but also something for professional study of designers and the general public.

Toronto Montessori School Richmond by Farrow Partners. Image: Archive of Tye Farrow

Bringing this knowledge to the general public is essential, as once you see something, you can’t unsee it. We see that coming out of the COVID pandemic, people are beginning to understand that their environment significantly impacts their feelings. They are beginning to see how places help or prevent them from enjoying different activities, working, or learning.

In lectures, I often ask people: “Can you think of the space where you do your best thinking?” And then I ask: “Is that where you actually work?” And everybody erupts in laughter. The place where people work is usually not the place that would enable their best thinking.

In designing architecture, we are laser-focused on creating a space that enhances what people do.

When we design a place, we ask questions like: How should this space make people feel? What kind of relationships should it enable? What behavior should it invite you towards? What should it communicate?

In designing architecture, we are laser-focused on creating a space that enhances what people do. We know there’s no such thing as a neutral space. It either drags you down or helps you flourish.

Architecture and Public Health

Natalia: You were talking a lot about health. Recently, when preparing a presentation I was invited to give at the European Parliament, I learned about the history of looking at architecture’s relationship to health. There were periods when architecture wasn’t associated with public health. We may not have known enough about human biology and the brain.

On the other hand, I was reading about how ancient Romans or Greeks understood intuitively that light could impact people and used it in constructing their buildings. Are we starting to make this connection between architecture and public health again?

Tye: In the second chapter of my book, I write about the history of health and wellbeing and our perspective because it has changed dramatically in the last hundred years.

New York Central Park by Frederick Law Olmsted, a public health advocate. Image: Photo by Juan Di Nella

We know that the landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted designed New York’s Central Park and the Boston Common. What isn’t commonly known is that he also founded the United States Sanitary Commission, a predecessor of the Red Cross.

He was a public health advocate who shifted into landscape architecture and park creation because he realized cities needed more open space, nature, air, and opportunities for activity and rest, using immersive naturalized parks as, in his words, “sanitary institutions” to enhance mind health.

I often ask myself, am I an architect or a public health worker? In fact, I’m interested, while still leading our architectural firm, in returning to university and studying public health as my next degree. Because as we’ve seen through COVID, the built environment significantly impacts both societal, physical, and mind health.

Credit Valley Hospital by Farrow Partners. Image: Archive of Tye Farrow

If you go back into history, you will find many ideas about human flourishing, such as the yin and yang in traditional Chinese medicine or Greek Eudaimonia. Romans had public baths, aqueducts, and public space infrastructure. Indigenous views go further back and discuss how the environment, the body, and society are connected.

But at the beginning of the twentieth century, the Carnegie Foundation funded an assessment of North America’s medical education system, The Flexner Report, which said that anything not western evidence-based medicine is effectively witchcraft.

So Yale, Harvard, and all the other leading medical schools threw away five thousand years of thinking about health and wellbeing holistically as it relates to medical education.

Afterward, we saw the tsunami of chronic diseases. But in the 1970s, there came Jane Fonda and her exercise videos. There was Phil Knight and his Nike shoes. Aaron Antonovsky developed a concept of salutogenesis – the study of the origins of health and wellbeing instead of focusing on the origin of diseases.

Until recently, medicine has been about preventing something bad from happening. Imagine there’s a lake, and people are falling into the lake and drowning. The usual response from a medical view would be to put up a fence around the lake. But why not teach people how to swim instead?

Healthcare Design

We have recently designed a cancer center in Jerusalem, the flagship center for Israel. It’s built out of wood and looks like a butterfly. It symbolizes a metamorphosis, the fragility, and the beauty of human health.

Shaare Zedek Helmsley Cancer Centre in Jerusalem by Farrow Partners. Image: Archive of Tye Farrow

The chief oncologist we’re working with, Dr Ben Corn, is a big proponent of salutogenesis and enriched environments. We’re also working with one of the top global neuroscientists, based in Israel, Amir Amedi, who has a brain lab looking at multi-sensorial environmental enrichment.

The CT suite has screens, speakers, and haptic sensors you can hold in your hand. And the study showed that due to this multi-sensorial stimulation, people’s stress lowers, and the heart rate slows down. They have also shown that you can create better health outcomes by strengthening hopefulness and a sense of personal coherence.

We met in his lab to look at how we could do this intentionally in the design of the whole center, not just specific rooms. For example, you see an internal garden when you leave the radiation department. It’s only about 30 square meters, but the soil smells like a forest.

When walking out of your treatment, the sight and scent bring you back to other places. And we are pushing this approach intentionally and creating a more holistic view of how health and the environment interact.

Before, when I went to a cocktail party and said to someone: “I design hospitals,” they rolled their eyes and thought: “Well, hospitals aren’t designed.” And yes, they’re the last thing to be, as we perceive it, designed. The cancer center we designed; people say it doesn’t feel like a hospital at all.

Credit Valley Hospital by Farrow Partners. Image: Archive of Tye Farrow

So the question now is – if something like a hospital didn’t exist yet, and we had to design one, what would be its qualities and characteristics? Over the last hundred years, we have been firmly rooted in the pathogenic view of health, and now we are emerging out of this hangover.

The pandemic accelerated our awareness of how our lifestyle affects our health. Look at the variety of wearables people use – watches, rings, sensors. Those devices make us aware of our heartbeat, activity levels, help us exercise, sleep, and so on.

And today, even if you look at the most prominent places like Harvard, Yale, or John Hopkins Medical School, they’re looking at art, music, and nature as something you can prescribe to enhance health outcomes.

We’re at a fundamental shift. There’s a lot of focus on ecological health right now, which is essential. Still, we must move further to planetary health, consisting of all the elements – the environment, society, and how we design our economy to cause health. All of those things are thoroughly interwoven together.

My question is – how can architecture and urban design create conditions for flourishing and tackling our challenges? All of these crazy things are happening in our world.

And coming back to Frederick Law Olmsted, architects need to realize they are public health servants, using architecture and design as a tool to help us resolve many societal issues we face. We have to frame architecture as an accelerant of change.

The York School Wellness Centre by Farrow Partners. Image: Archive of Tye Farrow

Natalia: I agree hundred percent. Medicine’s sole focus on the disease was one of my frustrations when I studied it. And when I started working with architecture, I saw a lot of work to be done to link it to public health. What other types of spaces do you focus on besides healthcare?

Tye: Apart from the healthcare sector, we’re also designing schools because the environment significantly impacts learning. We’re also working on city-scale projects and campuses.

Natalia: What would you highlight as your most aspirational projects? Something where the principles we have been talking about have been implemented?

Tye: I would highlight three projects. One is the tree-like Credit Valley Hospital cancer center. Then a couple of years ago, we just opened the Toronto Montessori School using similar principles. It uses a radial plan with wooden arches that use fractal geometry to lead your mind through the space and evoke curiosity.

And the third is the Shaare Zedek Helmsley Cancer Centre in Jerusalem, which opened recently and which uses many elements of enriched design. They are all similar in the way we approached environmental enrichment.

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