Serious Illness Shapes Architect’s View of Healing Environment

Yesterday’s LA Times ran a very moving story about two architects who lost their sight and, rather than give up their passion — architecture —  found a way to design, without being able to see. 

This brings to mind a local architect who has found his own approach to design changed by illness.  Jeff Tohl of Studio City specializes in the design of cancer laboratories, and is now himself suffering from Mantle Cell Lymphoma. He sent DnA these thoughts:

I was diagnosed with Mantle Cell Lymphoma in December 2006. It provoked a lot of fear and anxiety about my mortality. In the meantime, I was trying to run a 6-person boutique architectural firm I had founded in 1982. We worked on very personal small and personal contemporary homes and cancer research labs. I was forced to take a leave of absence,  and the chemotherapy and transplant allowed my to do nothing but think about what I really wanted to do, faced with a life altering experience. I thought I wanted to pursue glass-blowing, painting, writing; something more individual and immediate with tangible results.

But I also spent a lot of time thinking about what a therapeutic environment should be. Prior to my illness, I designed labs to be bright, colorful and a creative environment for scientists. But the first CAT scan I had, I remember looking up a the ceiling and recognizing all the heap filters and sealed lighting and all the mechanicals of a room. It offered very little comfort being there nor did I have the sense that it was a nurturing experience.

Hospitals just don’t provide a sense of wonder and openness for exploration and contemplation. You spend a lot of time in isolation and away from nature and calming elements. Between chemo and the transplant, my wife and son and I went to Alisal Ranch in Solvang, and I realized just sitting by the lake, that I hadn’t seen the sky, trees, a lake, sounds of nature, since I’d started. It was a startling revelation and one I felt needed to be part of the rehabilitative experience.

I really believe that having a recuperative experience surrounded by landscape is very uplifting, and area where you can walk and experience the wonder of it all. I’m not talking confined rose gardens but something along the line of a zen or Noguchi like space- and environment that leaves room for the imagination.

DNA NOTE: Jeff Tohl is in urgent need of stem cell match (a match drive was held this past weekend; another will take place later this month – information to come).

Also, last October’s DnA looked at the design of hospitals and the growing recognition that the environment and access to nature plays a very important part in healing.