Monday, November 5, 2012

Holistic Living: What Can Indigenous Cultures Teach Us?

One of my avenues of exploration for arguing for biophilia for Pagans, as well as the world at large, is going back to ancient sources. Much of Western society has been slowly built up over the ages on ideas and architecture that find its wellspring first in the ancient Greeks and then the Romans. However, hundreds and thousands of other cultures existed in the same time period, some that are much older than the Greeks, and some that still (barely) survive today. In every continent today, there are indigenous peoples whose way of life often (if not always) depended on an intimate relationship with the natural environment, building up their cultures, societies, and belief systems around that. I don't want to suggest a Noble Savage scenario, as that is just as disingenuous as it is racist, but rather that each culture survived (and in a few cases, still do) due to this interdependence. In those cases where indigenous peoples are dying out (and there are shamefully many of these), the reason why can usually be traced back to dispossession from the lands traditionally inhabited, whether physically (actual removal from said lands) or socially (active discouragement from retaining traditional ways of life in attempts to "civilize").

What I propose is not simply obtaining justice for indigenous people and restoring land to them - in some cases, this would also dispossess people currently inhabiting these lands. Rather, I think ways can be found for holistic integration. In fact, I believe this is imperative.

I have to stress that I don't think we should throw the baby out with the bathwater: we have many technological advances that can and should be utilized. Ideologies, as well. However, in helping restore native ways of life, I strongly believe we also uncover ways to save ourselves from a natural destruction. We relearn modalities that reknit families, societies, cultures, and our relationship with our natural environment. We help heal some of the spiritual and mental ennui (sometimes even despair or anhedonia) individuals of our societies sometimes feel.

I will begin with examining aboriginal domestic structures from all over the world. I propose that, where native cultures had a societal and spiritual, as well as biological, interdependence with their land, similar structural forms and spatial organizations can be found. These rely on recognizing a land's characteristics and building in relation to the site as well as the clan/family/tribe/cultural group's biological needs. I am hoping that, in finding some of these similarities and analyzing their sources, we can utilize the information to inform modern forms of biophilic design that are thoughtful and responsive to our individual as well as societal needs.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Body, Mind, Spirit: the Intersectionality of Biophilia, and Where the Hell I'm Going With This.

Some classmates (who I also count as friends) and I attended the IIDA Annual Meeting at the Michael C. Carlos Museum back in June. We took a break from networking to go outside for a cigarette, when my friend Stewart up and asks, "So, what are you doing after you graduate?"*

I didn't hesitate, because I'd actually thought about it recently: "Aside from looking for a job? I'm going to write a book."

"Oh, yeah? What about?"

"I want to write about biophilic interior design for pagans. We've got books on feng shui, but there's nothing really out there for Westerners."

"Really? Why's that?"

I smiled. "Because that's what I am."

(*Conversation paraphrased due to poor memory, but this is as close to the actual conversation that took place as I recall.)

This is what happens when you get devoured in your Capstone project, or at least that's what happened to me: I became excited and pretty much obsessed with biophilia and the idea of biophilic design. I want to share it with everyone, but the first people I want to introduce to biophilic design are the people who will most identify with it and (currently) don't seem to be terribly aware of it.

You see, pagans (or Pagans, as you prefer) have a large variety of books on "decorating" the home in a mystical manner, which often rely on color theory and symbolism and don't typically go much deeper than that. Sometimes there is mention of ley lines or "dragon energy" and trying to orient homes and spaces to take advantage of them. But the most in-depth examination of "house energy" typically comes from a plethora of books on feng shui, not many of which I would personally put a lot of stock into simply because there's a lot of bandwagon and inappropriate appropriation going on in that area. I've done some study of feng shui, and there's a lot more to it than simply not putting a lot of red in your kitchen, or where you place your bed - it relies on a system of Occidental astrology and geomancy that's not always appropriate to a Western system of society or belief structure. That's not to say that it's bad or that you shouldn't use it, but that there needs to be more relateable and less appropriated alternatives (and that if you're going to use something like feng shui, please do so thoughtfully!).

What I want to do is pull together knowledge from a variety of sources into one book (or, if need be, a series of books) that helps Westerners of a pagan bent truly understand not only how their interiors work, but how to incorporate their belief systems thoughtfully into them to create something holistically harmonious and sustainable.

Part of that, I believe, necessitates biophilia and ecopsychology. Pagans, on some level, already know about these subjects but I don't think have been made aware of them and truly taught. I've noticed that people like Starhawk, for example, have gotten into permaculture - that, to me, is an example of walking the talk and something that needs sharing with the greater pagan community. We talk about living in harmony with our Mother, the Earth (even sing about it!), but I see many examples of where we don't always live that philosophy. I'm also seeing examples of where we are living it, and I want to encourage that to grow.

Biophilia and ecopsychology tie in together with our bodies, minds, and spirits. The body aspect can be easily understood: if we truly care for our natural environment, it will in turn take care of us. We eat more sustainably and make healthier food choices, and we go out into our natural environment more often, which means more exercise and fresh air. On a macro scale, the more people taking care of their local environments results eventually in better living environments and less climate change, the latter of which is not just good stewardship but also enlightened self-interest. Nature doesn't need us, but we need nature. That's just a fact.

Our minds need nature more than ever, and the burgeoning studies of biophilia and ecopsychology are making this ever clearer. The work of Dr. Howard Frumkin at Emory University, for example, has found some evidence that the presence of plants and animals in the design of hospitals reduces the need for hospital stays by approximately a day, as well as reducing the need for pain medication. This is because we find the presence of plants and animals reassuring and reduces our stress - we are soothed. Physical and mental ailments are reduced through interaction with nature. Children with ADHD, for example, are better able to focus in a natural setting. That is just one of many examples examined by Richard Louv in his book Last Child in the Woods.

I should hope that I wouldn't need to outline why spiritually biophilia makes sense for pagans, but I will definitely underscore one reason why: nature is part of our heritage. As Richard Rudgley noted in Episode 4 of the documentary series "Pagans", we made a bargain with Nature long ago. How we uphold it has changed, of course, but it is no less important today than it was long ago. We see care of our natural environment as part of our spiritual job as well as our physical job because we don't separate the physical from the spiritual: they are closely intertwined, if not one, and neglecting one for the other is foolish in our eyes. We need to care for ourselves and each other in a holistic manner to lead balanced, healthy lives. Biophilia should be part and parcel of what we teach and pass on to each other just as much as we talk of meditation or energy-raising.

So, back to this hypothetical book.

There are many areas I want to research and address, and I've begun compiling sources. Among them are topics and experts I've cited above - just yesterday, I bought Mr. Louv's book. Last week, I found another of E.O. Wilson's books, The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth, which I've begun reading and found deeply moving and quotable thus far. I'm also picking up any books that relate to this - yesterday, I also found a college text on Environmental Science (Principles of Environmental Science: Inquiry and Applications by William and Mary Cunningham) that talks about systems, species populations, human populations, biodiversity, and agriculture, among many other topics.

But aside from the specific ecological angle, I'm looking at the Western pagan angle as well. What did we do in the past with our homes? How was this shown in myths and stories? How do we know this from a historical perspective: what has history and archaeology taught us, and more importantly, how successful were their strategies and what of those can we use in our own homes? What are we as pagans doing now that is, or can be, successful?

What are we doing as a society that is successful? What does interior design teach that isn't commonly known, and how can we marry all of these ideas together into happier, healthier, more holistic interiors (and buildings!) for Western pagans?

These are the questions I am asking. I hope to answer some in this blog, which I want to become the foundation of my book. I will be looking at the past, present, and future. I will be looking at materials, sources for them, and their wise use. I will be, ultimately, addressing residential design as a possible curative for our society, beginning with education, and specifically of the people who will most understand it because it is you - us - who can be the example and carry the message:

Caring for the Earth may be a dirty, hippie job, but it isn't crazy. It's imperative, it's everyone's job, and it's nowhere as onerous as others may try to make you believe.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Senior Capstone Project

Here it is, I've finished college. Once I've completed all graduation requirements (I've got one left, at least), I'll soon have my BFA diploma in hand. I'll have graduated cum laude from the Savannah College of Art & Design's Interior Design program, which currently is ranked #1 in the nation for its graduate and undergraduate programs by DesignIntelligence. Kind of makes me a smart cookie, but I'm not alone - at least a quarter of my other classmates are also cum laude or higher. We're all smart cookies here.

So, now I have time on my hands to share things that I've learned, and also to begin sharing things that interest me about interior design, biophilic design, sustainability, art history, and related areas of interest (like archaeology, or physics - I'm a bit nerdy).

What I'd like to share first is my Senior Capstone Project. It's a bit like a thesis for most other undergraduate programs, in that it's a summation of what you've learned as applied through your particular lens of interest, but different in that it's not just a paper you're writing, but also a model of a design you're creating where you know every detail of the project and exactly why you make the choices you make. Every detail, down to the last brick. Ask me anything about this project and I guarantee I'll have an answer.

I created what I call the Chrysalis Shelter for Women and Children. It's biophilic transitional housing for survivors of domestic abuse. I was jokingly asked last night where the shelter is for men - my answer is, I haven't made it yet. I also don't want to make light of the plight of abused men, because it does happen, and it's a pretty serious problem, but the statistics for women and children are staggering. It is an epidemic. One in four women will be affected by domestic abuse. The rates of homicides linked to domestic abuse are horrific. In one year alone, Georgia rose from being 10th in the nation for the highest rates of male-instigated homicide of women in domestic abuse situations, to being 6th.

In the 2011 from the National Network to End Domestic Violence, Georgia had nearly 2000 victims served in one day. In the same survey, 243 requests were unmet due to factors such as a shortage of staff, shortage of funding, not enough transportation, and so on. 67% of those unmet needs were for housing. That's in just one day. Multiply that by 365, and that's for one year in one state. Look at all the reports from every state. If that doesn't absolutely floor you, if that doesn't move you, I don't know what would.

I'd already been moved before I knew the statistics; it made me want to cry, to fight, to do something afterward. Therefore, I devoted the next 20+ weeks of my life to working on this project, even if it didn't provide any immediate benefit to the women and children the project was intended for - if it just helps create awareness, then I've done something. Perhaps one day I can do more.

Perspectives from the project, created in Revit 2012 and manipulated in Photoshop 5:

Seedling Room-final
Seedling Room

North Residential Hallway-final
North Residential Hallway

Living Lounge-final
Living Lounge


Kids Play-final
Kids Play

Classroom - final

This is the book I created: Chrysalis Shelter for Women and Children
These are the presentation boards for the project: Chrysalis presentation boards

The boards and book were both created in Adobe InDesign 6. So, a lot of programs were used for the project, everything from MS Word to Adobe products to Autodesk products.  But I believe I also owe a debt of gratitude to Edward O. Wilson and Stephen Kellert, who wrote about biophilia and biophilic design: I've never met them, but their work inspired me and this project. My work from now on will hopefully build on this.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Revitalizing the world (and this blog).

I believe that the writing I'm most drawn to is autobiographical in some way - it's the personal stories I'm most interested in. It's my way of connecting with other people that I otherwise might not get to meet. So when I write, I feel compelled to do the same, to write from an autobiographical point of view. I could write something slightly more impersonal and be more popular, perhaps, but for me it doesn't feel as genuine. Being honest with who you are is important to me.

What's also important to me are several things: interior design and the building arts, the Earth, community, and spirituality. I believe that all of them can intersect in meaningful ways, and during my time at school, I've sought for ways to make that happen. It wasn't until my most recent quarter at SCAD, which entailed beginning my capstone project, that I finally found it: biophilic design.

What is biophilic design?
Biophilic design is an outgrowth of Edward O. Wilson's book, Biophilia. "Biophilia" means "love of life," referring to nature, and biophilic design aims to incorporate this meaningfully into design as a restorative act. Studies have shown that ill, injured, or traumatized and stressed people recuperate faster when they have access to nature in even small ways, such as a window with a view to sky, sunlight, and trees. People respond positively to nature, both consciously and subconsciously. Neuroscientific evaluation goes into the nitty-gritty of why and how, such as subconsciously noticing and responding positively to fractals, but the bottom line is this: if we're able to enjoy sunlight, fresh air, see and touch plants, and get the hint that animals might also enjoy the surroundings, then so do we. We relax more, are more productive, and are generally happier.

As an interior designer who is eco-conscious, however, this has additional benefits. Biophilic design also aims to be sustainable. Daylighting, natural systems of ventilation (or that which successfully mimics them), and natural fabrics and finishes, for example, are very sustainable - it costs much less to air-condition a building if it's done so naturally. Less money is spent on lighting. Materials are less likely to contain VOCs, and if local materials are bought and used, they are contribute to the local economy, cost less to ship, and at least carry the potential to be sustainably harvested and created.

Biophilic design takes many of these wonderful, worthy theories and methods of sustainable design (Cradle to Cradle, LEED, etc.) and says, "This is really, really great, but let's push it one step further and not just heal our environment, but heal people as well." Biophilic design reconnects people with nature, and this disconnection from nature is something I feel deep down has become a societal illness. When we disconnect with nature and with other people, we value it less, and see it more and more as a commodity to be used and thrown away. We see people as commodities to be used and thrown away. We are no longer in communities that sustains every individual in it through interactive and interconnected systems of survival and nourishment, but are in our own little worlds that just happen to neighbor other little worlds. Civilization is founded upon communities, not individuals, and civilization can stand only if its communities reach out and truly support each other.

We have gotten away from the idea of mutual dependence for survival because we haven't felt the immediate need for a long time. With our planet and our societies decaying, however, I feel the time has come to recognize this mutual dependence once again, to acknowledge that we really need each other and for more than survival: we need each other for joy and happiness, to nourish a love for mankind as well.

I recognize that I sound as if biophilic design is our silver bullet to cure everything. I do sound like the recently converted, I know. Is it the magic cure-all? I don't think so, but only because I believe that education comes first. Education is the catalyst for change: not strictly classroom or academic education, but world experience, hands-on work, learning to see through the eyes of another person. Education can help foster empathy and understanding, and asks questions such as, "What can I do?"

I think biophilic design answers "what can I do?" with, "Respect nature by creating your built environment in harmony with it. When you do so, you knit communities together in harmony as well."