I wrote most of Technobiophilia at home in a cottage in the English Midlands, sitting in front of a back room window overlooking a small courtyard containing potted plants. I had arranged the plants so they looked good when you were in the courtyard, but my window looked out onto only part of it, so most of the time I could not even see the beautiful greenery I had curated.
The view from my desk featured only a single white clematis bush, but clematis is a deciduous climber which booms gloriously for a few months and for the rest of the year looks like a drooping clump of dead sticks. And I was so deep in my work that I did not even notice the paucity of my view. It was only towards the very end of my research that it suddenly dawned on me that all the plants I had spent money and time on were at the other end of the courtyard and invisible from my window. Feeling rather foolish, I realized that not only would a simple rearrangement of the pots bring colour and greenery into my view all day long, but they would also be a working application of biophilic design. I moved them right away. From then on, as I sat writing, I could raise my eyes and enjoy brilliant red geraniums, multi-coloured mesembryanthemums opening to the sun and a succession of other beautiful and renewing greenery.
So here is a question: what kind of view do you have from the places where you work and relax?
One aspect of my window view which was already biophilic was the fact that at the time I was living in an old country cottage where the mullioned windows of the sitting room had eight panes apiece. According to architectural designer Kent Bloomer, the large picture windows we so enjoy and which reinforce that sense of bringing the outdoors indoors are actually provoking a damaging level of cognitive dissonance. This is because, he explains, ‘we possess a psychological boundary around our bodies (and by extension around our houses) that divides, or separates, our sense of a personal, possessed interior space from an exterior extra-personal space.’ This boundary is vitally important to our experience of the world because it conditions our perceptions of the environment; it appears at places of entry and exit, providing visual information about ‘social rank, safety, cultural belief and the occupants’ relationship to nature’. Passing through the boundary indicates the near-possibility of touching and that haptic experience is, says Bloomer, ‘fundamentally critical in establishing a firm connection, a “contact” with the natural environment. Yet’, he goes on, ‘touching is precisely what is negated by the pure picture window!’
His solution is to make the boundary more obvious, not less, by investing in ‘the liminal transitional space of the window’ and using different tactile ornamentations to emphasize the threshold. By touching them, or being able to imagine touching them, ‘you may heighten your sensual association with the world outside’. Examples of such interventions include thicker or tinted glass, mullions connecting small panes, old-fashioned bottle-glass, leaded and stained glass, or even just patterned curtains or blinds. You can also buy large transfers of life-sized flowers and shrubs to stick onto picture windows, and various kinds of sun-catchers and mobiles to hang in front of them. All of these can establish a ‘visible and touchable moment of mediation between inside and outside’.
If that sounds a little far-fetched, consider this: Bloomer ends by pointing out that the ‘naked’ picture window ‘provides a sanitized vision and might even promote a false feeling of fulfilment predicated upon an illusion of experiencing and being connected to the natural environment’. His proposition does not seem to have been scientifically tested, and it rather contradicts the general belief that big picture windows strengthen our sense of the outdoors, but it is an interesting thesis and worthy of some experimentation.
For more see Kent Bloomer. ‘The picture window: The problem of viewing nature through glass’. In Biophilic Design, by Stephen R. Kellert, Judith H. Heerwagen and Martin L. Mador, 253– 262. New Jersey: Wiley, 2008.