On Health, or: The Ecology of Living

Contemporary definitions of Health are complex and far-reaching. Health influences, informs and conditions an increasingly broad range of contemporary life. It has evolved as an industry, an aesthetic, an attitude, and a mode of design. With this evolution, Health has shifted from the modern paradigm of a seemingly universal social right, to more recently – an individual’s responsibility. This now means that the motivation for creating healthy environments can be both altruistic and financial, and the environments themselves – both sensual and highly digitized. These shifting and diverse understandings of health are representative of a shift toward recording, quantifying and certifying an increasingly broad spectrum of contemporary life.

Inevitably, Health as a value system and a commodity is being taken up by a diverse set of players. In the private sector, it has been used as a motive for attracting talent, increasing productivity and selling a lifestyle – while the rise of cities vying for visibility on a crowded global stage sustains its importance as a public service. In the case of housing – it is the need for basic standards of healthy living, coupled with the complexity of catering to increasingly diverse lifestyle models and family structures that expands this discussion further. However, while notions of Health and wellbeing have been absorbed into many phases of everyday life, its connection to the idea of retreat still holds considerable sway – no matter how many yoga classes are offered in your workplace. The demand for space that demonstrates exceptional qualities of health and wellbeing has elevated the best of these sites to near pilgrimage status. Combined, these streams of Health give it a strange dual appearance today – it is both omnipresent, and elusive.

The state of Health and Wellbeing today is representative of a broader pattern of private companies taking up previously public tasks. In the pursuit of creating healthier, more liveable cities – how is the responsibility shared between these sectors, and how do they interface? Within this discussion, architects profess one of their core competencies to create environments attuned to the needs of their users. Employed to create space that supports the diverse interpretations of what it means to be Healthy, it is the ambition of this option studio series to steer the conversation and find new agency within this crowded and competitive domain, toward imagining new forms of Healthy living.

The Ecology of Living
The first in a series of five, The Ecology of Living explores the possibilities for Healthy living in challenging metropolitan environments. To begin, the studio will be frontloaded with case study streams that will unpack the broad and evolving role of health in contemporary life. Following the initial period of critical analysis through these research streams, the studio will shift toward designing a generic, prototypical system related to housing. The system will then be tested through a site-specific housing proposal. The Alfred E. Smith Housing site has been selected in order to contribute to the on-going debate concerning issues of infill and intervention of New York’s public housing stock, by emphasizing the importance of Health within this discussion. Through this approach, Health will be understood as a driver through both analytical and propositional phases of the studio – aiding in formulating a research agenda, a systems design, and ultimately – a design strategy for an innovative housing proposal.

This exploration into the expanding notions of what health means today brings the discussion to the foreground and frames it as an urgent architectural concern. In doing so, the proposals will necessarily divert from the standard models currently offered by and perpetuated through the housing market, and refocus toward the future Ecology of Living.

This course has an irregular meeting schedule.

Ben Van Berkel and Christian Veddeler will be in residence on August 29 and 30, September 15 and 16, October 13 and 14, November 3, 4, 17 and 18, and December 1, 2, 7, 8 and 9. The studio trip will take place September 27 –30.