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With bright, elegant art on the walls and the generous empty space which often marks the rooms of those who are aesthetically developed, Dean Kim Tanzer’s office demonstrates the sense of vision she seeks to bring to her work. As Dean of the University of Virginia School of Architecture, Kim Tanzer believes that the environment around people—the building, the landscape, and the community—can have a profound influence on their physical and psychological health: “In how I teach and what I design, I’m very interested in the interconnection between our physical environment and our emotional, social, spiritual experience of space.” This topic evidently enlivens Dean Tanzer, and she is eager to elucidate the links between health and spiritual wellness, because “a key component of health is one’s mental and emotional state, so a lot of places designed to be healing environments are also places for contemplation.”
This passion for creating therapeutic and peaceful environments is apparent in architecture students across the University as well; Dean Tanzer explains that “asking our students to consider healing and sustainability is almost unnecessary; University of Virginia students have such a passion for those things already; the University as a whole does.” Students at the architecture school utilize a project-based curriculum, so that they receive extensive hands-on experience designing contemplative and healing spaces while earning their degree. These projects can take a variety of shapes and sizes, “in the past years we have had students design schools and landscapes and even a Tibetan Studies Medical Center; they have taken classes in designing healthy environments—environments that look at health indictors, including the role of nature, how quiet things are, how interconnected things are—by assigning particular projects, students are given the ability best to consider how to do that, how to make a contemplative space.”
In order to better support this mission, Dean Tanzer has been central in establishing the Center for Design and Health—an organization within the architecture school whose purpose is to coordinate students’ study of therapeutic environments. This work has marked Dean Tanzer as an innovator in the field, extending the art of building healing environments beyond the more traditional buildings many people consider: “There is a sense that people interested in healing environments are only interested in hospitals, but our focus is really far beyond that…the Center for Design and Health is unique across the country because it focuses on the healing potential of all built environments, not just hospitals.” To further develop the Center for Design and Health, Dean Tanzer is in the process of hiring a full-time faculty member to teach at the intersections of built environments and healing, a move which she hopes will attract more students with a specific interest in the field.
While many universities and schools of architecture are becoming interested in the therapeutic potentials of architecture, Dean Tanzer is enthusiastic to continue to be a forerunner in understanding how best to build explicitly mindful environments: “Contemplative spaces quiet the other senses so that the mind can come alive, but the specifics of what in an environment is healing or leads to a contemplative mindset is still largely unknown, which is part of what makes it so exciting to be doing this work.” In the future, Dean Tanzer hopes University of Virginia students will be known for their explicit emphasis on creating sustainable and spiritual environments, explaining that “I would like our students to be thinking far beyond the scope of their own commission and to be considering planetary health over the next thousand years with every design decision they make.”