East Greets West


Stephen Nicoll considers Art and Nature: Healing, a passionate exploration of the use of nature-inspired artworks and architecture in the promotion of patient wellbeing. HD January 2007

Oozing enthusiasm for its subject, Art and Nature: Healing - Design for health in the UK and Japan is a pleasure to dip into. Healthcare designer Graham Cooper's book is bulging with illustrations, observations and philosophy, woven around a central thesis - that Britain's NHS and the Japanese healthcare system have much to teach one another about the use of nature as a healing art form.

A study of environment, at first reading the 100 pages seem haphazardly arranged - albeit with impressive breadth of vision. Yet once understood as a collection of 'arts in healthcare' papers published (many by HD), and delivered as lectures from 1995 to 2005, it all falls into place.

The articles are newly classified as Art, Nature, Holistic Environments, and Japanese Models. Fresh material is interspersed, and the essays are not reprinted chronologically so that 'dipping in' is reasonable. Models for space-planning and art integration inform Cooper's quest - a kind of blueprint for quality patient care, backed by informative photographs of architectural settings featuring water gardens, sculpture and other art forms.

Part 1, entitled 'Art: nature's way to feed the senses', links five papers exploring the effects of art on healing. For instance, we are told that research indicates that "psychologically appropriate art can substantially affect anxiety and medicine dosage" (Arts Council of England). Examples of such art in the UK are to be seen at St Thomas's and Chelsea and Westminster. From Japan, Cooper offers case studies of Osaka and Tokyo Hospitals.

There are cultural observations such as, "in aesthetic and stylistic terms, the naturalistic is deemed comparable to the status of Chinese Classics or Romanticism". Less cryptic is the observation "borrowing or remodelling of nature as in Ikebana flower arranging or the laying out of a Zen garden are highly regarded art forms". We learn that combinations of art and nature (Ikebana is a highly stylised and structural art) can have a reassuring influence, evoking calm contemplation and peace of mind.

We may ask 'what is the place of art in healthcare?' Cooper refers to a study by health research guru Professor Roger Ulrich of Texas University which concludes that "abstract art: bad/landscape art: good" in the context of patient recovery. This diagnosis, to aficionados of action painting - a form of abstract expressionism - seems a hard pill to swallow, and is one which eastern consciousness and western artists, to paraphrase Cooper, would contest. However, other seminal Ulrich studies have demonstrated the healing qualities of art - especially water features - in landscape.

Nature and nurture

The second part of the book collates five papers comparing the 'Benefits of nature' at healthcare facilities in Japan and Britain. Cooper invites us to mentally 'invent the scenery', to visualise sun-soaked, scented vegetation, herb gardens, rippling water, to hear the birdsong - a veritable health spa - and why not! UK models include Dorset County (featuring drystone walling, Frink sculpture and trellis), St Georges (with its water garden), Glasgow Homeopathic (a garden-hospital) and St Luke's Tokyo (roof gardens).

Part 3, 'Building health in the community', explores British Health Community exemplars, beginning with Peckham and Finsbury social welfare centres of the 1930s. It continues, via Bromley-by-Bow (inner city regeneration) and Okehampton (community pride, and miniature

tea-ceremony) to pioneering holistic self-help facilities at Maggie's Centres and Faith House, Dorset.

Part 4, 'Health care in Japan', looks at Japanese Healthcare Models. An increasingly centenarian demography presents challenges for Japan - one staggering statistic is that in a country of over 120 million, average length of stay (in 1998) was 20 days. We learn that hospitals often catered for whole families. Older gargantuan buildings were once uncharitably characterised as 'morning market', 'rush hour train' or 'scrap and build' hospitals.

New facilities including cancer clinics, health centres, sheltered accommodation and Red Cross hospitals, are now endowed with art and nature. The final paper, describing the Spa Rehabilitation Clinic in Hondo City, concludes with an enticing description: "The rotunda observation tower provides unobstructed panoramic views from which to admire the sea, mountains and the stars." Sounds like healthcare heaven!

Go with the flow of Cooper's didactic writing for he is at his crusading best when sharing personal visions of a brighter future. Brevity may not be his forte, but from Budhism to Shinto, from Ikebana to Origami, even from Exeter to Evelina, - in short, from West to East - he has a genuine feel for nature as art. The book title's enigmatic colon ':' denotes 'equal to', and a Zen master might suggest that 'less: more'. But for now, more seems quite alright.

Homepage    Health Design