Breathe: Healing Architecture

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Figure 1 – Space Flowers by Victor Lundy1

Studio Instructors

Jason Lim, Christine Yogiaman & Zheng Kai



Life on Earth is sustained by an implausibly thin layer of gases that form the atmosphere. This link between air and life has been recognized since antiquity. Across several cultures, words describing air have etymological roots in vitalistic concepts. 气 in Chinese conveys an additional meaning—life force/energy, while pneuma in Greek translates to ‘breath of life’. Today this relation between air and sustenance is clearer than before. A minuscule rise in percentage of atmospheric CO2 or the emergence of new pathogenic airborne diseases would be life-threatening. In this studio, we will reaffirm this relation and explore how air can be a motive force in driving new conceptions of healing architecture.

Air is by nature, invisible and amorphous. Unlike physical matter, it cannot be shaped nor easily controlled. It escapes easy description through conventional means of representation. Perhaps it is for these reasons that air remains largely an afterthought in contemporary architectural design approaches. Yet, air is the literal substance that fills the spaces delineated by physical architecture elements. As a dynamic medium that carries energy, propagates sound, and transmits smells, it has an undeniable impact on how we perceive the environment. At the same time, there is a small but compelling body of work by architects/engineers such as Heinz Isler, Thomas Herzog and Yutaka Murata that demonstrate the potency of air as a form-determining agent. Pioneering the field of pneumatic architecture, they invented design processes and constructive techniques that continue to be used and developed by contemporaries like Herzog de Meuron and ICD Stuttgart University today.

In medicine, air is important from two general perspectives. The first is pathogenic. Once air was discovered and verified to be a vector for disease transmission, controlling airflow became critical in terms of treatment and prevention. Hospitals are organised into open and sealed spaces and employ various means—natural, mechanical, positive/negative pressure—of control. The second is healing. There is growing empirical research showing how air impacts the closing and healing of physical wounds. Moreover, air has an experiential dimension relating to its conveyance of sounds/warmth that affects patients’ moods and in turn, their recovery. Hence, medical architecture is the exception whereby air is not an afterthought, but a critical design consideration instead.

The Living Lab

This studio is part of the Living Labs initiative, which is a research collaboration between SUTD and Changi General Hospital (CGH). While addressing the overall theme of healthcare, we will respond to a specific challenge—to design responsive healing spaces.

COVID has revealed several shortcomings in the current planning and design of medical facilities. Chief amongst these is a lack of adaptability that prevents existing hospital spaces from being quickly converted to address sudden spikes in medical cases. The past year witnessed the conversion of existing buildings such as the Expo into medical facilities, but this remains a stopgap measure. If we consider the emergence of novel diseases to be likely rather than anomalous events in future, then there is an urgent need to address this gap through more intentionally designed solutions.

The studio will be geared towards developing design proposals for a medical facility that can be rapidly deployed in response to emerging needs. It will be an extension or annex to a hospital that is constructed on a greenfield site. In this regard, the studio will be working closely with CGH to better understand the requirements and operation of medical spaces through arranged site visits and inputs from medical professionals. The proposals will be based on pneumatic architecture systems, which are naturally lightweight and adaptable; and developed using form-finding processes based on precedent cases but updated with modern computational and fabrication techniques. At the same time, we will pay specific attention to the qualitative environments generated within these structures and condition them with a view towards healing. The studio aims to propose designs that are tectonically innovative and daring, performative with regards to complex medical requirements, and finely attuned to users spatially and experientially.


Phases Inputs Columns
Week 1 Preparation Lecture: Hospital typology
Week 2 Design through prototyping:
Physical experiments and computer simulation
Lecture (CGH): Understanding air in wound healing and pathogenic transmission
Week 3 Workshop: Modelling and simulating airflow at CGH
Week 4
Week 5 Lecture: Fabrication of pneumatics systems
Week 6 Mid-review
Week 8 Design development:
Site response, programmatic requirements, tectonic strategy
Week 9
Week 10 Workshop: Simulating airflow and performance in proposals
Week 11 ¾ review
Week 12 Design production:
Visualisation (AR) and scaled model
Workshop: Representing the ephemeral
Week 13
Week 14 Final review

1 Donna Kacmar, ed., Victor Lundy Artist Architect (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2019), 215.