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Space can have a therapeutic effect - interview with Joanna Jurga, PhD, a guest at the 5th ŚFN

Joanna Jurga, PhD, designs spaces for isolated living. She is the author of many architectural projects. Currently, she is researching human senses, the sense of security in earthly and cosmic conditions and in isolation. She teaches how to change private and public spaces to serve people and have a positive impact on their well-being. She was a guest at the 5th Silesian Science Festival KATOWICE.

Should we already start looking for a house in the countryside, far away from city noise, concrete, and high-rise buildings for the sake of our own well-being and health?

– Not all cities are bad. This is just not the case. However, we still have a rather inept system of urban modernisation, where developers rule. We could live in them peacefully and they could be humane - unfortunately, there still isn’t any proper legislation. Activist groups and people involved in science are not going to change the system. There are plenty of studies on how well-designed cities should look and function. This is not rocket science. It is enough to tear down the concrete, plant trees, create vertical gardens on the walls of the empty buildings, and guarantee people access to light and free public transport in exchange for not driving cars into city centres. Let these simple solutions do the work. When I am abroad, in young, developing agglomerations where metros with six lines were built in 10 years, I still wonder why there are only two lines in our country. There are elaborate and proven solutions on how to create a city for the people. For example, the problem of high electricity consumption or a lack of water - we have ready-made solutions for this: street lights that turn off when there is no traffic and collecting water that can be used for watering gardens or flushing toilets. The second issue is education. An informed citizen who wants to do something for his or her neighbourhood knows how to look for solutions and how to implement them. City leaders are another problem. They often erect monuments to themselves in the form of concrete squares. They care more about what will be left of them in the urban area than about the well-being and comfort of residents. For several years, there has been a noticeable boom in constructing homes outside of the city. This is due to the possibility of working remotely and educating children online. But what if we all have to go back to our offices? When we find that our dream of homeownership collides with the reality of transport? Most suburbs don't have the infrastructure ready for such a drastic increase in population. Traffic jams are inevitable. I currently live outside of the city and see what is happening on the commuter roads. A few years ago you could get to Warsaw in 20 minutes, now it often takes an hour. That hour costs fuel, time that could be spent differently, and frustration. I believe that most of us should live in cities, but they need to become a good place to live.

Could you give us any examples of cities or towns that are people-friendly, that can almost fully meet the requirements and standards of a good, humane city?

–  I would suggest looking for good examples. There have been concepts of utopian cities. Brasilia and some other well-known modernist ideas looked great in the planning phase. The case of the Brazilian capital is particularly worth showing as an example of unsocial architecture and what could go wrong. When we divide a city by functions, we lose the self-sufficiency of neighbourhoods or quarters. This is something that Paris is now opposing, creating the concept of a 15-minute city, where you can do all the most important things on foot within a quarter of an hour. I also appreciate Amsterdam for its traffic organisation, its investment in renewable energy, its localism and its emphasis on cycling. Already 10 years ago, when I was in Berlin, I saw highways for cyclists as separate lanes. Nowadays, the situation needs to be redesigned again because the popularity of electric bikes and scooters, which reach higher speeds than those powered only by muscles, is constantly increasing and can be dangerous. The vertical gardens at the Musée du quai Branly in Paris (with windows built into the planted facade) and inside the National Theatre building in Taipei are excellent examples. They show that if there is no room for a classically understood garden, there are still solutions that can be applied. Recently, I also saw the unusual and beautiful building of CaixaForum - an art centre in Madrid. The majestic structure seems to levitate and the amazing impression is complemented by a green wall overgrown with plants - 15 thousand plants of 250 species! The whole wall is a garden. Why is this important? Because every square metre of greenery is oxygen. As we cut down forests and put tons of concrete in cities, we have to give something in return.

Even though this is only a substitute and does not solve the problem...

– We are living in a time of a climate crisis. Hundreds of thousands of people are migrating as a result of war, famine, and water problems, and this is only the beginning of the changes caused by our interference in the Earth's ecosystem. We will be moving towards livable places on a gigantic scale. Introducing smart, rather than marketable, solutions to improve the quality of life in cities, changing the perception of consumption, and valuing the things we already have rather than the things we can have can help us, humans, to create a slightly more liveable world, but also to manage or slow down the changes that are happening right in front of us.

You talked about the projects of utopian cities. I have to mention here the idea of a garden city, which was enjoyed some popularity in Katowice in the past. How do you assess this city?

– The concept was beautiful and you can find a lot of pre-war projects all over Poland, even entire residential quarters built on this premise. I think it's one of the best urban concepts. But very often architects and urban planners like to create utopian concepts. There's no denying it, we have the god complex and the urge to create things that are, at least in theory, ideal for humanity, but sometimes detached from reality. I used to visit Katowice more often, now I've visited for the first time after 3 years and I have the impression that a lot has changed for the better, although I still don't understand the palm trees on the market square. I would rather see oaks or birches there, more local, homely plants. But I have noticed many renovated tenement houses, well-kept greenery, streets closed off to traffic, and places for people - restaurants and pubs with gardens. Of course, there is still too much concrete. I would just drive a giant bulldozer over the market square and make a Central Park - because why not? It's obvious that people need some shade and contact with nature.

Bohaterka wywiadu ubrana w biały skafander astronauki wśród betonowych szarych kolumn.

Joanna Jurga, PhD. Photo by Łukasz Paczkowski


I think there is still a lack of cooperation between architects and urban planners, who also work at universities, and city authorities.

– There are several problems here. Firstly, the education of architects. There are many people at universities who are up to date with trends and technologies and who can be mentors. However, there is a lack of young people who could start teaching and boldly introduce some changes. The exchange of personnel should be systematic. Unkind people say that architecture is a science of designing water and sewage pipes, i.e. toilets, and creating nice facades. There is very little humanity in it. Neuroarchitecture, for example, which deals with the influence of space (angles, textures, sizes, colours, light) on its quality, has its origins in 1967, so the concept is over 50 years old. During this time, thousands of studies have been written about how specific elements of space affect us in given functions, but we continue to cling unreflectively to canons. The second problem: even if a well-educated and conscious architect starts working for the city, he has to deal with the mayor, who has his own vision. He also has to build a rapport with a private investor, a big developer, because he's the one with the money. It scares me that in the 21st century the only thing that matters, and not only in architecture, is the number of zeros on the contract. We are creating cramped cities resembling thermoses encased in polystyrene foam, where every square centimetre has a price. With this approach to space, the quality of public spaces will not get any better.

It isn't a secret that space affects us. Why are we irritated and stressed from the very morning, standing in traffic, or spending hours in an office full of glass, concrete, and cold light? The question almost answers itself.

– Filip Springer put it well, that we are corporeal beings, which means that we occupy space that affects us. We came out of forests and contact with nature is fundamental for us. After so many thousands of years of living on this planet, we already know very well what and how it affects us. I wrote in the introduction to my dissertation that I am not discovering anything new. I simply collected knowledge that in many cases has been known for hundreds of years. But then I drive through Poland and I see that people paint the walls of their houses orange, add blue light, and they think that it will turn out cosy. It will not. If we changed the education system and taught sensory science, practical geometry, and the relationship between people and space from the very beginning, we would know what has a positive influence on us, and what has the opposite.

So again we are back to the basic problem - sensible education.

– We lack mentors, people who will advocate change. I have been talking for two years about nothing but proper light bulbs and humidifiers and to surround ourselves with natural materials. This is not innovative and people listen to me as if I were Einstein. I get messages like “We bought carpet and there's better acoustics in the flat, it's gotten cosier” or “We tore down the concrete, planted trees and shrubs, and the birds are back”. Someone has to talk about it and remind us of it, point out these basic truths that constitute the decalogue of a good space.

Where did your passion for space come from?

– I am the author of more than 80 different projects, mainly interior ones. My clients included large companies with several hundred square metres of space to design and single mothers with 22 m2 studio apartments. I noticed that the first meetings, no matter who I talked to, looked the same. The same questions about laminate, why I don't recommend it, why I prefer wood, or how they brought me projects of interiors presented in fashionable interior design magazines. They didn't realise the basic thing - what was in the picture was just supposed to look good, and not necessarily be functional or good for the person. We see this every day on social media - the artificiality, the flashiness. I found that I had to address this problem. I decided to give up my company and go back to university to write my PhD. My research topic was therapeutic space and more specifically, what it could be. An example was old hospitals. When a patient has some greenery outside their window instead of a wall, they take half the amount of painkillers and are discharged three days earlier after surgery. Much has been written about this, and studies and research have been carried out. This is the knowledge that needs to be communicated. I found that I could make beautiful visualisations of a welcoming space in the office or home, but that would be secondary. I decided to focus on polar explorers and astronauts. I assumed that if something I came up with was going to work in extreme isolation, it had to translate into a big sample. I went down that path, and in the meantime, the pandemic started. It was helpful to me. People had to turn concrete bedrooms into multifunctional microcosms. It takes at least 2.5 years of preparation to send an astronaut into orbit. We were shut down overnight. I have a need to talk about good space because there is a total disagreement in me with the state we currently have.

Thank you very much for the interview.

The interview was conducted by Agnieszka Niewdana

The interview was published in “Gazeta Uniwersytecka UŚ” (University of Silesia Magazine) (issue 2 [292] November 2021).

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Drapacze chmur i inne wysokie budynki widziane z dołu. Na tle niebo w kolorze żółtym. pomarańczowym i fioletowym.
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