Fighting disease with design: Light, Air and Openness

© Zonnestraal Sanatorium/ Jaan Duiker

Part of a series looking at how the lack of antibiotics affected architecture before, and how it might again.

An earlier post in this series, Antibiotic resistance will change the way we live, described how antibiotic resistance was becoming a problem, and how we might soon actually be living without them once again. After Robert Koch figured out that a bacillus caused Tuberculosis back in 1882, and after World War 1 and the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918, Doctors knew what caused many diseases but didn’t have the drugs to deal with them. So essentially they and the architects of the time fought disease with design.

light air openness© Light air openness

In Light, Air and Openness, written in 2008, architectural historian Paul Overy demonstrated that many of the features of modernist classics, and much of the furniture and the trends in interior design, are a direct response to disease, and a belief in the healing power of light, air and openness.

It started with the sanatorium movement, where buildings were designed to provide what was about the only thing that cured tuberculosis: rest, fresh air, and sunlight. Overy writes about how the design elements used in these hospital settings were transferred to homes:

Sanatoriums exerted a powerful hold on the imagination of modern architects and designers as building types and institutional models. Among the first to be designed in in “modern” or “modernist” style, purpose built sanatoriums for tuberculosis and other chronic diseases were some of the most technologically advanced buildings of the first decades of the 20th century. Combining associations of health, hygiene cleanliness (and easy-to-cleanness) modernity and machine like precision of operation, they were to have a major influence on modernist architecture and furniture design between the wars.

It was definitely a style: “The austere white rooms for the patients of sanatoriums were designed not only to be easy to clean but to appear to be spotlessly clean- potent visual symbols of hygiene and health.”

The basic rules of the hospital soon came to the home:

Dirt and dust harboured germs that must be destroyed by fresh air and sunlight. Homes should be cleaned thoroughly every day and windows and doors opened each morning to let in the sun and air, to destroy the germs. Heavy drapes and curtains, thick carpets and old furniture with decorative features that harboured dust and microbes should be thrown out and replaced with simple, easily cleaned modern furniture and light, easily washed curtains.

Maison Osenfant© Maison Ozenfant/ Le Corbusier

Le Corbusier preached this in his book, Towards A New Architecture:

Readers were urged to buy only practical furniture, never decorative pieces. “If you want to see bad taste, go into the houses of the rich.” Clutter was prohibited: “Keep your odds and ends in drawers or cabinets… a house is only habitable with it is full of light and air, and when the floors and walls are clear. Heavy furniture and thick carpets must be eliminated. “bear in mind economy in your actions, your household management and in your thoughts.”

Today, we worry about dust being full of flame retardants, and overstuffed furniture being full of bedbugs; it’s not just bacteria that one can fight with minimalism. That’s why furniture changed, moving away from carved wood and upholstered chairs; “Dust containing tubules and other bacilli lodged in upholstery, in crevices, and especially in decorative features, add as regarded as a particular enemy of hygiene to be eradicated at all costs.”

chair adThonet Chair ad/via

So Thonet made chairs out of bentwood and cane; Aalto used bent plywood; Marcel Breuer out of tubular steel. It was all designed to be washable, light and easy to move to get at those dust bunnies lurking underneath. “Mies van der Rohe wrote of one of his tubular-steel chair designs that it could be “easily moved by anyone and because of its sled-like base it can simply be pushed across the floor.”

It therefore promotes comfortable, practical living. It facilitates the cleaning of rooms and avoids inaccessible dusty corners. It offers no hiding place for dust and insects and therefore there is no furniture that meets modern sanitary demands better than tubular-steel furniture.

For years on TreeHugger we have gone on about minimalist design, about paring down to the essentials, about living with less stuff. For some, it was about saving money and having a smaller footprint; for others, like me, it was really an aesthetic derived from years of studying Le Corbusier and other modernists.

But is ironic that so much of that fashionable minimalism was a response to dust and disease, and a search for light, air and openness as the antibiotics of their day.

More in this series below:

Tags: Green Building | Healthy Home | Less Is More


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