Exploring the design of healing spaces

By Adeela Akmal
Tue, 07, 21

This week You! talks to two renowned Karachi-based architects, Yasmeen Lari and Zain Mankani, about therapeutic and sustainable architecture…


As of recently, many of us must have come across the term ‘safe space’. While this can be any place for anyone – physical or a manifestation – it generally refers to a place where a person feels secure and at peace. These spaces allow you to vent, unwind, heal and to be free.

Therapeutic architecture is about space and place. Designing spaces according to people’s perception and physiology, and therapeutic practice is the essence of therapeutic architecture. It involves using the environment to be restorative and support health and wellbeing.

Bamboo Atelier, a zero-carbon structure designed by Yasmeen Lari in Makli for Heritage Foundation of Pakistan

To understand the impact of good architecture of human psychology, Karachi-based Architect Zain Mankani elucidates, “Architecture has a very significant impact on human psychology. For instance, if a person is held prisoner in a small cell where his movement is restricted; there is little light and air coming in; and the surfaces are cold and hard, it will have a very negative impact on his psychological development.”

Zain Mankani

As the population grows and excessive constructions take place, homes are losing their very essence. “Unfortunately, in the context of our city, many of the apartments that are built in the city centre are no better than prison cells. They are small, have poor lighting and ventilation and made of industrial materials like concrete. There is no connection to nature,” tells Mankani. “Green spaces are considered wasteful and difficult to maintain and therefore most developers are not interested in providing such breathing spaces in their projects. In addition, the streets are also very narrow, either due to encroachments or because they were originally planned as such so as to maximise the built-up area of the development. As a result, there is little light and air flowing in to the buildings from outside. There is also traffic congestion, accumulation of solid waste in the streets, overflowing sewage etc. This lack of fresh air, greenery, the daily onslaught of putrid smells and the sight of garbage everywhere has a terrible impact on the psyche. This builds up over time until it begins to exhibit as neuroses or more severe psychological disorders.”

In some way, we all experience this frustration and neurotic disorder, which comes out in road rage, short tempers, foul language and outright violent behaviour, but we fail to see the built environment as one of the contributing factors to this phenomenon.

Yasmeen Lari

Located at the corner of M.A. Jinnah Road in Karachi, there is a sprawling brown brick colonial library called Denso Hall, which was one of the first libraries in the city. Up until last year, the place looked overcrowded and unflattering. Recently, Architect Yasmeen Lari headed the preservation project for this heritage site. The lane, known as the ‘Denso Hall Rahguzar Landscaped Walking Street’, an initiative of the Heritage Foundation of Pakistan, is no longer open for traffic. There are Makli tiles on either side of the lane with clay disks here and there that carry superimposed sketches of the 12 historic buildings, reminiscent of the Victorian era, that happen to be famous landmarks of this area. And there are trees growing in the middle. “As we began the construction project, we started to notice a change in the shopkeepers’ attitudes in the area. Every person, across all social classes, deserve a pleasant environment. No one likes to live in a place that looks like a garbage dump. So, when we did this project, we started to notice these shopkeepers became more responsible of their surroundings. They started watering the plants around them and keeping the area clean. We were very happy with the change.”

Plantations added for Denso Hall renovations in Karachi by Lari.

Lari is a strong advocate of eco-urbanism and believes that it is high time that the healing process should be taken up now. “We have to keep the climate and the environment in mind when we are making these buildings. The construction industry is responsible for nearly 40 per cent of global carbon emissions. It’s not just hurting the planet; it is hurting us too. We have to start by reducing our carbon footprint, which will then bring a positive change as a whole.”

Designed by ZM

When it comes to the kind of materials that are used in buildings, Lari emphasises on the need to use natural materials. “It affects your health. Materials like mud and bamboo have a cooling effect, lime acts as a buffer and there is a lot of value in its usage. Whereas, cement and concrete are impervious, there’s no resilience. When we use these, there is no water seepage and we are losing our aquifers in the ground. Many metropolitan cities are becoming urban heat islands because there are too many buildings and not enough nature.”

Greenery adds life to your homes and elevates the look to the next level. (Designed by ZM)

Lime is produced by heating limestone, which is a type of calcium carbonate. This releases the carbon into the atmosphere and leaves behind calcium oxide. This compound, also called quicklime, is then mixed with water. And as the mixture hardens, it reabsorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The lime continues to recarbonate throughout its lifetime, slowing turning back into limestone and reducing its carbon impact. Bamboo, on the other hand, is a fast-growing renewable resource that sequesters carbon dioxide throughout its life.

Lari has been responsible for designing some of the country’s landmark commercial buildings such as the Finance and Trade Centre and the Pakistan State Oil House, but she expresses that she wouldn’t be designing buildings like such anymore. She is more focused towards high-density and low-cost structures which uplifts impoverished communities while treading lightly on the planet. “There are lots of ancient wisdoms and techniques that have been used over the years, which will be more useful now. In residential and office setups, we have to start looking at the old town designs, which had courtyards, lots of natural light and ventilation.”

Spaces lit with natural light tend to feel more expansive and spacious. (Designed by ZM)

Resonating with this, Mankani adds that people are not meant to live in the kind of environment that they are forced to live in our cities. “This is why you see that on the weekends they flock to the beach and they crave for vacations at hill stations. We people need openness, fresh air, and a connection to nature, because we are made from the Earth also.”

Greenery has been shown to be beneficial to our mental health. (Designed by Zain Mankani)

Architecture is more than just making buildings. Well-designed architecture and the connection individuals have to it is not something that’s easily quantified. Whether it be beautiful, awe-inspiring, or simply a mindful connection to nature, architecture can help restore the missing element in our built environment and addresses the very issue that is the cause of psychological imbalance.

Natural light gives an extra edge to the colours present indoors, making it look more profound and pleasing. (Designed by ZM)

It must repair the link with nature that has been broken by the man-made structure of the city. “The human soul is eternal and infinite. And it seeks perfection because it proceeds from The Most Perfect Being. It does not thrive in a confined space, and because it is always searching for beauty and perfection, it is repulsed and harmed by ugliness, disorder and foulness. Architecture must resonate with the soul and provide it with the kind of environment that is needed for its nourishment. Such an environment must be based on order, beauty, openness and other qualities which are attributes of the Divine and which therefore not only resonate with the soul but nurture it on its path to perfection,” concludes Mankani.