Published in 2/2023 - Care


Many Faces of Care

Freja Ståhlberg-Aalto, Iida Kalakoski, Riina Sirén, Maiju Suomi, Ella Kaira

Illustration: Eeva Sivula

Who does architecture take care of? How should architecture itself be cared for? The following texts offer four distinct viewpoints.

A Successful Care Environment Is Kind to All the Senses

Freja Ståhlberg-Aalto

The aesthetics and architecture of the care environment have a huge potential to create well-being, improve the quality of life and speed up healing and rehabilitation. The environment affects us in many ways simultaneously and personally. We see, hear, feel, smell and even taste everything that surrounds us. In care buildings, the importance of the environment is particularly emphasised: as the users’ ability to function is diminished, they spend a large part of their time there.

A successful care environment offers sensory experiences that stimulate the mind and generate positive feelings. Indoors, this means beautiful, authentic materials and colours, tactile surfaces, a moderated soundscape, pleasant smells and opportunities for movement. Natural materials provide rich sensory experiences. A wooden surface warmed by the sun against the skin, or a rough wool carpet between the toes are everyday experiences that activate the sense of touch.

Just the right amount of natural light produces pleasure and a sense of the time of day and the passing of time. The residential or patient rooms have carefully considered views out, even when lying in bed; this provides stimulation and a connection to the outside world. The windows can be opened, and the rooms have direct, easy access to a balcony or yard. Already at the time of Florence Nightingale, the importance of fresh air for people’s health was understood. Research has shown that nature and being outside improve cognitive abilities. Daily outdoor activities in the local park or yard should be a human right.

A good care environment has a fresh, pleasant smell. The person arriving is met by the inviting smell of food or freshly brewed coffee, not the unappealing odours of urine or disinfectants. In addition to ventilation, the latter can be checked by taking care of user hygiene.

Respect for user integrity and privacy are keys to a successful care environment. Residents and patients have a right to privacy; their own private realm, a room or apartment of sufficient size with washing facilities, in which they can live independently and with dignity, take care of everyday chores and be alone if they so desire. Everyone can modify, decorate and customise their space to their own tastes and to suit themselves. They can bring from home their own belongings and furniture. Feelings and memories are connected to personal objects, that is, a person’s identity and history. Especially for those with memory disorder – but for others, too – familiar objects are meaningful and bring a sense of security.

Dividing residents or patients into smaller units of 4–8 persons creates home-like and human-scale proportions. Both in assisted living and in physical and mental rehabilitation centres, the users profit from practicing independently coping with daily chores in an home-like setting. The accessibility and dimensioning of indoor and outdoor spaces suitable for people with reduced mobility and for special groups ensure the functionality of the care environment.

Personal integrity also includes the right to choose how to live, what to eat and drink, and with whom. Successful care environments comprise pleasant common spaces, where encounters occur naturally. The care building offers a restaurant where residents can order the food they want, a bar with a view where they can have a drink, and a communal kitchen garden. The hierarchy between private, semi-private, semi-public and public space allows people to choose their own level of community participation. Social encounters can be supported through planning, for example in multi-generational housing blocks and by placing day-care centres or student apartments in connection with care environments. In a successful care environment, no one has to feel lonely.

Architect, Doctor of Science. Researcher with a special interest in the aesthetics and architecture of care environments and learning environments. Works as designer of cultural buildings at JKMM Architects.

Wood Invites Care

Iida Kalakoski, Riina Sirén

The concept of care typically refers to activities between people, but the built environment, too, requires care in order to remain usable. When it comes to buildings, we usually talk about upkeep, maintenance or repair, but through the concept of caring, we can better understand the psychosocial dimensions of carrying out these actions.

Care only became established as a scientific concept in the 1980s, and its definition is ambiguous. Gender studies has highlighted the relationship of care with subjugating structures. The social sciences deal with care widely as a system, an advantage and a right, as well as the experience and relationship between the caregiver and the person being cared for. At first glance, the approaches are united by the idea of an activity with a relatively low impact, which is done repeatedly on behalf of others and with good intentions.

In Finland, the traditional wooden building stock required active and regular care so as to remain usable. Buildings, like other commodities, were cared for within the home. It was not until the period of social transformation that took place around the 1960s, that the work was increasingly transferred to professionals, when people’s everyday environments changed from wooden to reinforced concrete and from self-built to industrially produced. One of the central arguments for abandoning wooden buildings was, and still is, the constant maintenance they require – the new reinforced concrete buildings were seen as maintenance-free and therefore better than wooden ones.

There is a stigma attached to care. It may appear as an action that limits and restrains change. Care is linked to the concept of repair, which is sometimes considered the direct opposite of creating something new. This stigma is manifested, for example, by the continuous innovation from one decade to another of “maintenance-free materials”. The need for maintenance and the tendency of wood to look shabby even when the condition is not poor has come across as a handicap, even a reason for the demolition of a building. This is also one of the reasons for the young age of the building heritage in both Finland and other traditional wood-building countries, which in turn is reflected by the small number of wooden buildings on the Unesco World Heritage List.

The stigma associated with wood is also manifested in the aestheticising way in which the material is used in contemporary architecture. Wood may be used only in the ceilings, in which case it is taken out of the reach of both maintenance and damage. Wood can be imitated with materials that are advertised as maintenance-free, or with colours that resemble wood.

Wood is an example of a building material that seems to have been marginalised or defined as “the other” because wooden buildings require constant monitoring and care in order to survive. Materials that require care, however, are often repairable rather than one-way replaceable. The constant care needed by wooden buildings requires dedication and commitment from the owner. At the same time, maintenance proves rewarding for both buildings and their caretakers. Care activates people and communities and makes them committed to local tradition. The built environment becomes more diverse and pluralistic when different people can take care of it in their own way. The slow and repetitive nature of care makes the buildings appear as building tradition rather than monuments to be protected in a permanent state. Caring for buildings is valuable culture in itself – an intangible cultural heritage transmitted through knowledge and skill.

Architect, university instructor and researcher specialised in the management of built heritage.

An architect and building conservator working at university, public administration and private field. 

Architecture is Part of a Life-Sustaining Web

My grandmother grew flowers. She took care of three children and one husband. She tended a garden where the lilies greeted guests with their large orange-yellow flowers. From the irrigation pool in the yard, I fished out worms that had drifted there during the rain and had slowly turned limp. Grandma made porridge and sewed clothes for my dolls. 

I went to school. Despite her wishes, my grandmother didn’t get to go to school, but she learned to put her creativity into care. She sewed, made lace, knitted, and when something went wrong, she would exclaim “unravel”. From my grandmother’s vegetable garden, I would pick some crispy, long carrots, which I would then rinse under cold running water. They tasted wonderful.

Science and technology scholar and feminist theorist Maria Puig de la Bellacasa rephrases Joan Tronto and Bernice Fischer’s generic notion of care as ”everything that is done to maintain, continue and repair the world, so that all can live in it as well as possible. That world includes… all that we seek to interweave in a complex, life-sustaining web.” Architecture is created as a part of this world, in individual places and situations, yet becoming part of a complex web of care.

Ecological interactions are often too extensive, either in space or time, for us to grasp. They are there, however, when we make the effort to feel for them carefully. I’m searching for an architecture that brings out these relationships for a person to experience. What kind of forces sustain our lives? And conversely, what kind of care does our world need so that everyone, both humans and other species of animals, fungi and plants, can live in it as well as possible?

Architecture can care for and destroy both environments and their inhabitants, near and far. Design choices have an all-encompassing effect on the opportunities for both people and other living things to live in a world where our well-being is intertwined. Biodiversity takes care of us at the microbial and experiential level. We are born, develop, flourish and wither away together with other species. In the end, the worms turn us into soil and food for new growth.

Materials come about regardless of us. The clay from which we burn bricks is deposited from minerals that originate from ancient stars. Fossil energy, which we use to hold materials together, emerges from the bodies of plants that died millions of years ago. Trees grow from sunlight and carbon dioxide. Before we modify them to protect ourselves, they have provided a home for countless other creatures. The space in which our building settles was full of life even before us, even though we could not see it.

Architecture stretches forwards and backwards in time, concretely and figuratively, in an ecological and cultural sense. Materials and energy have their roots; their movement to and from buildings affects the environment we are a part of. At the same time, our buildings are products of culture and shapers of our worldview. They are part of history and can serve as a visible, living example of the opportunity for change for the rest of society.

My grandmother taught me how care in relation to place and materia takes place through creativity. Sometimes it meant a critical gaze, unravelling and weeding. Caring can require honesty in the face of a difficult-to-accept reality. If care removes a person away from others, above the rest of nature, then nature becomes merely a resource for our well-being. If, however, we extend the ethical examination to future generations of humans and other species, then the requirements for the architecture we are now building will become stricter. What kind of built environment supports a world where everyone can live as well as possible, now and in the future?

Architect, doctoral researcher at the Department of Design, Aalto University. In her research she examines architecture as a discursive tool for environmental topics i. e. through Alusta Pavilion, conceived together with Elina Koivisto.

The Local Community Heals

We live in the midst of loneliness. While the previous century was defined by respiratory infections such as tuberculosis and pneumonia, in the 21st century various mental health disorders, such as depression, exhaustion and anxiety, endanger both people’s health and the functioning of society. The public health effects of increasing loneliness, which is linked to several health problems, are considerable. 

Being isolated at home during the coronavirus pandemic has reinforced a worldview in which physical objects have been replaced by an information-centred digital order. According to Byung-Chul Han, a South-Korean philosopher critical of today’s society, digitalisation has made it possible to share information without real-life encounters between people: information is generated and shared in private spaces without any public discussion arena, and this has harmful effects on the realisation of democracy and the vitality of local communities.

Social support networks attached to urban space offer people forms of care that are often invisible from the outside. These important connections can, however, be obscured if cities are developed without empathising with the users’ experiences. Urban spaces with a stronger local origin would help cure today’s global cities suffering from a lack of authenticity. Participating in th development of one’s own residential area can also strengthen the feeling of social influence, which is connected to well-being through the accumulation of social capital.

The wishes of the urban residents have been taken into account, for example, in the development of Barcelona’s Superilla neighbourhoods. The blocks planned in the mid-19th century by Ildefons Cerdà in the city’s Eixample district have been developed, together with local residents, to make them more pleasant for pedestrians and to offer functions the users have wished for. The locals have been involved, for example, in the planning of the Sant Antoni neighbourhood, where special attention was paid to the voices of minorities.

In Finland, a new type of participation model was implemented in Tampere’s Hiedanranta district, where the inhabitants were involved in the further development of the master plan right after the ideas competition organised in 2016 for the planning of the area had been resolved. In the workshops consisting of local residents, architects, urban planners and researchers, the concept of a new kind of urban living was devised, from which ideas were later drawn for the zoning of the area.

Involving the city’s inhabitants in the planning process requires solid background work, so that the participants would represent a diverse selection of their residential area, and so that the information received from them could be suitably included in the plan. Examples from around the world remind us that when renovating neighbourhoods, an effective way to get the approval of the locals for the changes is their participation in the planning process as early as possible.

Local communities offer a remedy for a society that exhausts an increasing number of people and where people more often meet each other only virtually. Social capital stemming from existing communities should be taken into account when making urban reforms. Permanent neighbourhood networks can alleviate loneliness by providing meaningful daily encounters. Also, changing one’s lifestyle to a more ecological one would go more smoothly if a broader selection of all of us, those whose everyday life will be affected by the changes, would participate in envisioning a sustainable urban life. ↙

Architect interested in equality in urban environments.