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The Profound Beauty of Biophilia

by David Krebs

Header photo: The work of Miguel Angel Aragonés at the Viceroy Los Cabos

The scientific principles of biophilic design influence us physically and psychologically. OSM columnist and architect David Krebs explains here how the impacts are clear when we visit an intentionally designed resort and can be applied to any living space.

Through history we have inherently known we feel better when we are connected to nature. And today, when we visit a place or enter a space, it’s often possible to pinpoint the thing that makes us feel so good. Maybe it’s a blue sky seen from many angles, or perhaps it’s the sound of waves at an oceanfront resort, or the smell of pines in the mountains. As it turns out, very often the design of the buildings and layout of the spaces are enhancing those feelings. Designers of resort and wellness destinations in particular use the principles of biophilic design to guide them.

Celebrating nature in the built world

Biophilia comes from the words “bio,” meaning “life,” and “philia,” meaning “fondness for.” Biophilia is the human innate need and desire to interact or be closely associated with other forms of life. To be connected to nature. Just because we have evolved to live in houses and drive cars doesn’t mean we no longer need to be in nature. In fact, our lack of connectivity to nature is harmful to us physically and emotionally. 

Since most of us cannot be out in nature as much as our bodies need, we need to figure out how to get the benefit of nature in the built world. This is the value of biophilic design. It uses science to offer a set of design strategies based on the benefits and attributes of being in nature and how those could be magnified, repeated or mimicked through design in the built environment to achieve the same benefits. While the scientific concept started in the 1960s, we are just starting to see its strategies being used in the built environment.

Advances in cognitive neuroscience are beginning to show what is happening in the neural connections in our brains when we are in different environments. We can now monitor the body and see what is happening when we walk in the woods and feel at peace, or look off a cliff and are exhilarated, or gaze at a mountain range and are awed. We can see how those experiences affect our mood, creativity and clarity of thought, expedite healing and improve our digestive system, kidney functions and muscle tension. While we have much to learn about how our brains work, science can prove a clear and impactful link between environment and wellness.

Stunning biophilic design principles at work at Viceroy Los Cabos

Design strategies

Biophilic design strategies are typically broken down into 14 patterns. The patterns include categories like light, texture, materials, forms and patterns, presence of water, heat and airflow variability, prospect views, feelings of refuge and mystery. Each category has been shown to have different effects on our bodies based on the architect’s intention and implementation. In a resort setting, you may want the design effect to be calming and reflective, while designers of a restaurant or nightclub might aim for a more energetic and awakened feeling.

A common area of focus is the effect light has on sleep and circadian rhythms. We know that when exposed to the color changes of a sunset, our bodies release melatonin to help us sleep at night. In the morning, when exposed to the colors of sunrise, we are awakened, and serotonin is released to help control a whole host of body functions including digestion, mood, bone health, wound healing and sexual health. Designers can use color-changing lights and blinds to mimic these effects when it is not possible to live in the rhythm of the natural day.

The patterns in nature are a great design resource. Seashells, trees and leaf blades have structures within  them—in, say, their veins—that create patterns. These patterns can be used in floor patterns, wall coverings and furniture design and have been shown to increase cognitive performance and help reduce stress.

Stunning biophilic design principles at work at Viceroy Los Cabos

The Biopilia of Viceroy Los Cabos

One example worth diving into is the architecturally stunning work of Miguel Angel Aragonés at the Viceroy Los Cabos on the Sea of Cortez on the southern tip of the Baja Peninsula. He has created an immersive environment where all of the buildings are set in water with boardwalks and ramps connecting amenities and buildings. When you enter the property, you are immediately removed from the context of the area and thrust into an environment that is unexpected. The property is all sky above and water below, water which reflects the sky and extends out the horizon. It is a very ethereal experience of being in the middle.

The property also uses the concept of mystery as you move through it. The design has a series of paths that take you to the different parts of the property. This is powerful. The idea is that, by taking the paths, you are forced to leave one area and will be prepared for the next  one, able to be present when you get there. In walking through the property, you also move vertically by taking a series of spiral ramps down into cuts in the water to enter onto other levels. They have done this in an eloquent way that feels very natural but unlike anything you have seen before. The biophilic concept of mystery works as you cannot see what is ahead of you.

The architecture is minimalist and fresh for most of the project with a spectacular organic bird’s nest building in the middle. This is the restaurant Nido. The structure is made of sticks that create a canopy, a bird’s nest, that allows diffused light to make patterns on the floor as the day changes. These changing patterns of light and movement are biophilic principles that help you become present and excite your brain for creativity and engagement.

The Science of Spa

Science is often seen as rigid and mathematical. Our growing understanding about the complexities of how our brain functions is unlocking new potential for wellness. The beauty of biophilic design is that when it is done well, it feels natural and yet the effects on our wellness are profound.

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