Biophilic Engagement: The Case for Skyscapes over Landscapes

Biophilic Engagement: The case for skyscapes over landscapes

Landscapes don’t belong on the ceiling. But the sky does.

The sky is not a picture to be interpreted. It’s a portal to memories and imagination.

When I first began installing virtual skylights in radiation therapy vaults twenty years ago, doctors would often ask if one of their own photographs could be reproduced into a large skylight. The imagery ranged from vacation sites, gardens, architectural structures, sunsets or even pets. Most often these photos were taken with a standard 35mm lens. Sometimes wide angle, sometimes fisheye. All “home-made” photos that were technically unacceptable for large, clarity-critical reproductions.

Even with photos taken by an expert photographer, there are a multitude of potential negative effects an inappropriate image could have on a patient, or on the entire room. Some colors and shapes can create anxiety or even raise blood pressure. Some photos appear to be interpretive or even abstract which nearly always increases stress and should never be used in a healthcare setting. I find it doubtful that all patients would want to stare at a picture of the Eiffel Tower, or Rocky Mountains for the duration of their procedure(s). The medicated, or even slightly confused patient may have difficulty understanding why there are sailboats floating on the ceiling. The image for the virtual skylight is critical, especially when the patient is captive, supine, and has limited viewing options.

There is only one scene that all humans can identify, and communicate with, and that is the sky. Throughout human existence the sky has provided the time of day, year, location and weather. Arguably all people recognize the blue sky with soft white clouds brightly illuminated by sunshine as a natural, healthy, and happy sight. Everyone loves a sunny day. New scientific research through fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) studies at Texas Tech has confirmed that there are unique patterns of brain activation associated with the exposure to Open Sky Compositions: a visual stimuli created by Mother Nature and reproduced accurately by the artistic and technical wizards at The Sky Factory. I think everyone knows this, but scientific proof is easier to accept than hopeful persuasion.

Today, healthcare facility personnel and the architectural design community, have a professional understanding of Biophilic design and engagement, and the importance of bringing “nature” into the modern healthcare facility. So why do we sometimes see landscape photos (mountain ranges, sailboats, lighthouses) on the ceiling above a radiation therapy table? Was this a facility request in which the healthcare designers would not, or could not take a stand and show through evidence-based design, that such an image was inappropriate, ineffective, and probably counterproductive?

Full disclosure; I furnish virtual skylights custom created for each project by The Sky Factory headquartered in the wonderful little community of Fairfield, Iowa. I specialize in high-stress imaging and treatment rooms. I also use beautiful landscape images from the greatest nature photographers in the world to create virtual windows; but only on the walls, where landscape scenes belong.

The objective of a virtual skylight is to create the greatest illusion of a skylight possible. So when the captive patient is being prepared for, and undergoing their procedure, they have natural, enjoyable, and beautiful positive distractions realistically presented correctly to mitigate the negative aspects of these high-tech rooms. Unlike the un-natural landscape on the ceiling, a sky is instantly recognized and appreciated by any viewer, from anywhere in the room. The virtual skylight is for the benefit of all. The sky does not need to be explained, studied, or questioned to be appreciated. Just seen.

If you lie on your back and look up at the sky, it’s like the world is your backpack and you’re carrying it through space.  —Tommy Chong