Scholars' Association News
Issue 39
July 2016


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Morpheus’ light
by Dr. Evangelia Chryssikou

At an event on therapeutic architecture that I jointly organised a few years ago as part of the Art4More Festival, I had the pleasure of welcoming Dr. Cornel Lustig, holder of the world patent for sleep medicine. In his talk Dr. Lustig called into doubt the treatment of light as a good which is related simply to functional needs, and on the contrary pointed out the complex nature of light as an element that needs to be handled with knowledge and responsibility ‘just like vitamins and medicines’ to use his exact words. That remark focuses our attention on how we design buildings and use light.

The field that deals with the impact of light is extensive indeed. It has particular importance in therapeutic architecture, given that the user’s body is more sensitive. Light’s relationship to sleep is one of the most characteristic examples where evidence-based design feeds human-oriented design.

In 1981, John Zeisel’s book Inquiry by Design laid the foundations for correlating architecture to treatment, which then became well-established in the wider scientific community thanks to Roger Ulrich’s 1984 publication in the journal Science, bringing the architecture of health care facilities closer to therapeutic architecture, which is what we call it today. The roots of this correlation can be found in the shamanic practices of Asclepius, with the ancient Greek Asclepeion temples being considered examples of architecture with psychosocial therapeutic aspects to them. However, Dr. Lustig focuses on the symbolism of Ulrich’ contribution to the sector, taking the view that the publication per se in a ‘hardcore’ science journal, where one would not have expected to see architectural issues at that time, is a recognition of the sector in scientific disciplines outside of the anthropognostic sciences. What Ulrich discovered was that a window with a view of nature accelerated patient recovery after a surgical procedure, while also contributing to a reduction in the use of painkillers and made staff’s work easier, since patients were, if nothing else, more cooperative.

However, let’s go back to two points that we need to grasp. Using our eyes, we cannot identify the spectral composition of white light, in the same way that we can distinguish the musical instruments in an orchestra. Moreover, the spectral composition of light affects the visual, but also other systems in the human body either directly or via hormonal activity, and it has a major impact on performance, mood and health. This phenomenon is more intense in the disabled and more vulnerable population groups such as children.

If we look comparatively at the spectrum of sunlight, incandescent lights and fluorescent lights we can notice that the blue zone is limited in the second, and in general terms is important in the third, although the quantity of blue light differs depending on the type. In sunlight it varies depending on the time of day, with a balance of colours in the spectrum at midday. The importance of all this, which we have known about since 2001, has to do with the fact that the blue spectrum of light has a limiting effect on the body’s melatonin levels which in turn is related to the Circadian rhythm and to any other periodic rhythm in the body. Sleep, for example, is directly dependent on and regulated by melatonin. So, we have an example where light affects, regulates or suppresses the action of our hormonal system. With age, melatonin production changes. After the age of 20, production starts to decline and disrupted sleep may set in, as is normal with the elderly.

There is also another side to the blue section of sunlight. The blue section has more energy (HEV light) and generates toxicity in the retina. As the individual ages, if there is some condition or genetic predisposition, the ability to repair the retina declines.

In addition to the relationship between light and melatonin, the impact of light on people doesn’t end there. Scientists are beginning to understand this and are seeking out ways to apply this for our own benefit, such as by altering our stress levels. Let me sum up with the phrase that light ‘is a vitamin and like vitamins we need to know what type, if, when and how much we need’ as in the case of sunlight. During the day the solar spectrum contains a balance of all colours. At sunset, though, the sky turns reds and dark colours dominate, while the blue spectrum (HEV) is filtered out; in some ways this is a self-care mechanism so that we can sleep well and have melatonin at normal levels when we go to sleep.

Dr. Lustig’s view passes on the baton to the informed designer to envisage how this can be achieved and to explore the potential of its applications, using imagination and aesthetics, provided the mechanism is understood. Architecture that is close to developments in therapeutic architecture and the sciences that rest on it is increasingly well poised to design spaces that are not just functional but also tied into human physiology and its mechanisms.

Translating theory into ordinary practical tools, l would single out the following:

  • At home, the spaces where we spend most time, especially prior to sleep, are particularly important. Lighting that is more compatible with human physiology can make a difference in how we sleep.
  • In hotels, where the guest may well have to cope with jet lag, it is not just enough to provide a comfortable mattress and a range of pillows. Suitable sources of light, both in terms of position and type of lighting, have a real role to play.
  • In work places, especially in times of reduced sunlight, there should be natural light at workspaces.
  • The same holds true for patients’ beds. In fact, the last two points have been integrated into the laws of countries like Holland, which place major emphasis on the health of both patients and employees. A key factor in that decision was the need to protect against melatonin disorders.
  • Lastly, let us not forget suitable ventilation, thermal comfort and reduced noise nuisance. By relying on suitable design, by paying attention to detail and utilising knowledge of the relevant parameters, it is possible to create beneficial environments that are compatible with our physiology.
  • (Evangelia Chryssikou is an architect, hospital designer, Marie Curie Fellow at the Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL, and also founder of the applied architecture and research firm SynThesis Architects with offices in London and Athens).

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