babushkas of chernobyl via nytimes

The Chernobyl Paradox: The Intense Connection Between Health and Living Structure

At its 2017 PastForward conference, the National Trust for Historic Preservation screened a remarkable film: The Babushkas of Chernobyl, a 2015 release by Holly Morris and Anne Bogart, follows a group of elderly women who illegally returned to their houses shortly after the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Surprisingly, rather than falling ill, these women seemed to enjoy better health compared with their peers, most of whom had been evacuated and relocated to other environments. 

The lesson here is certainly not that radiation is good for our health. (Of course, it is deadly.) Rather, it is that the factors of human health are multiple—and the complexity of our environments plays a much larger role than is usually recognized. This is certainly relevant in the current Covid-19 pandemic. The health impacts of the built environment go far beyond specific pathogens to include our emotional wellbeing, as well as the physical effects of stress and other influences. We think there are definite, and neglected, health benefits of historic and vernacular structures.

We can only conjecture what happened with the return to Chernobyl. But an explanatory model for what constitutes a healing environment needs to consider separate, contributing factors. Adopting a three-factor distribution proposed in 2017 by Tom Mayes that outlines the relationship of old places to health, we identify three crucial factors: 

Health Factor 1: Mental and emotional health is supported by personal belonging, positive memories, and the identity of a place. 

Health Factor 2: Neurological nourishment comes only from places with special informational and geometrical qualities. 

Health Factor 3: Medical characteristics influence our physical health, with pathogens and pollution impacting health negatively. 

This model might help to explain why the babushkas of Chernobyl experienced better health than some of their peers, in spite of the radiation. The ladies who returned to their homes lived the rest of their lives in what was, for them, a healing environment, according to the Mayes model. First, their old homes contained memories and strong attachments to place. Second, not usually noticed (but obvious when you see the film) is that those houses were traditional wooden houses, embodying an extremely high degree of architectural life, as defined by biophilia and design patterns. Their houses, set within large gardens, surrounded by trees and a walkable environment, all added to nourishment from the biophilic effect. Third (and somewhat miraculously), whatever radioactive pathogens they inhaled did not seem to outweigh the other factors. 


The state had forcibly relocated residents to Soviet-style flats in a different city, some in brutalist high-rises. Life and social continuity with a sense of place were certainly diminished. An old person can rarely establish new life attachments in a new place, and, to make things even worse, industrial-modernist spaces discourage social interaction. The new environment possesses almost no biophilic properties, either from nature directly or from the buildings’ geometries and surfaces. Those industrial-style buildings have no ornament and are set in hostile—amorphous, empty, and oversized—open spaces, following the modernist urban model. There is little, if any, intimate contact with nature. 

The Russian women’s intense attachment to place urges an important new study that would prove to what extent the environment is capable of overriding external impacts, some as toxic as radiation. A quantitative model could be developed from our admittedly hypothetical proposition, a speculative exercise aimed to challenge the standard interpretation. The old ladies stayed in their radiation-saturated old homes and didn’t become ill. Scientifically speaking, this raises some interesting questions. 

People become attached to specific places due to a fluid mixture of memories, social ties, and positive personal events. This is a deeply visceral link, not shared by others outside family and closest friends. Bertram Opitz, a researcher at the University of Surrey, published an important study in 2017 demonstrating this powerful effect. An automatic physical and psychological response to these places positively impacts our bodies. And, conversely, we feel an emotional loss—longing and nostalgia—when separated from them.

There is also evidence of an apparent “salutogenic” (health-promoting) effect, coming purely from the complex geometry of certain environments, particularly historic environments that have evolved adaptively over time to optimize human feelings and senses. These environments elicit measurable positive feedback shared by almost everyone. Our body’s “restorative” response combines intimate contact with nature with experiencing a built environment that embodies the same generative and structural rules as biological forms. We recognize those instinctively. 

A specific composition of details on surfaces, forms, and spaces generates a “biophilic effect.” Evolutionary adaptation tends to favor this complexity, which is the reason why these forms are often embedded into traditional designs.

A specific composition of details on surfaces, forms, and spaces generates a  “biophilic effect.” Evolutionary adaptation tends to favor this complexity, which is the reason why these forms are often embodied into traditional designs. The word “biophilia” refers to our instinctive love of life, including its distinctive geometries. Awareness of biophilia’s impact on our body is playing an increasingly important role in turning design away from abstractions, and using it instead to help promote human health. Yet dominant architectural culture fails to recognize the value of heritage structures that incorporate these salutogenic properties as models to follow in building today.

There are clear health benefits for people living around traditional details and ornament, colors, curves, appropriate tactile surfaces, tectonic pieces on the human scale, such as window frames, window sills, small panes, muntins, moldings and trim, handles comfortable to grab, and so on. As we have discussed elsewhere, these characteristics have been described in the extensive work of Christopher Alexander and others.

Biophilia triggers positive psychological and physiological responses from users. We need an intimate mixing of a building with nature, with views onto real trees, mini-gardens enclosed or semi-enclosed by the building, and having the building’s footprint interwoven with adjoining gardens. Separately, we can incorporate mathematical structure adapted from biological forms, which includes fractals, organized complexity, scaling symmetry, similarity-at-a-distance, nested sub-symmetries. Reference to the gravitational axis requires tectonic elements with bilateral symmetry about the vertical. 

It is known that positive emotions come from plants, although anxiety-inducing industrial forms and materials reduce any positive biophilic benefits. On the other hand, old-fashioned ornamented interiors and façades offer positive feedback (known to all of our colleagues who practice classical/traditional architecture), but are less than optimal without plants or views to nature. 

Design Patterns” define the other main tool for generating a healing environment. These configurational solutions foster human health and arise out of evolved design that adapts to our bodily and psychological needs. Heritage buildings represent a repository of applied design patterns, fine-tuned through historical adaptation. Those patterns can be discovered and “read” from traditional built environments where they recur abundantly, then extracted and documented for immediate use today. (It’s not easy to do, but fortunately two compendiums for architects and urbanists are now available.) 

Biophilia and design patterns together promote a healing environment. Our body automatically recognizes geometrical signals that boost our natural immune and healing responses.

Biophilia and design patterns together promote a healing environment. Our body automatically recognizes geometrical signals that boost our natural immune and healing responses. This is key to future hospital design and achieving long-term health in all work environments. Biophilia does not tell us how to design spaces—its design patterns that do. Structures that embody biophilia and design patterns usually merge a building with its immediate surroundings, providing a strong sense of context, position, orientation, main approach, natural paths, and connection to urban fabric, all essential qualities of a restorative environment.

We can promote human health and wellbeing by reincorporating some of the same characteristics that have evolved over centuries and millennia. We can no longer rely on technology alone. It’s crucial to remember that our most lasting experiences come from colors, smells, sounds, interaction with other living beings, and intimate contact with nature. All of this gives meaning to life, promotes physical and spiritual wellbeing, and connects us deeply to place. These are the lessons we can learn from the babushkas of Chernobyl. If we want to create healthier environments, and save those existing pieces of urban fabric that may be out of fashion but that contribute significantly to human health, then we need to broaden our architectural thinking.

Featured image via the New York Times.



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