Vertical green walls, a landscaped courtyard, interior spaces bathed in natural light, finishes in warm hues and furnishings in soft colors—all these might describe a modern office building, but they’re elements of Strawberry Hill Campus, an inpatient facility devoted to adult mental and behavioral health of the University of Kansas Health System. 

What was once a dreary government building is now a sanctuary that promotes healing.

CannonDesign, an architecture and engineering firm, designed the Strawberry Hill Campus to support people’s psychological and social needs, an emerging trend in interior design called neuroaesthetics. “We design every mental health project with a focus on the human experience,” says Abbie Clary, health practice director at CannonDesign. “We believe creating a beautiful building is the baseline, and then [we] work to layer in considerations related to care and staff and patient well-being.”

CannonDesign’s approach is part of a growing trend in mental health architecture: designing spaces based on neuroaesthetics to improve mental processes.

The atrium at the Strawberry Hill campus at University of Kansas, designed by CannonDesign.

The brain and the built environment

Neuroaesthetics is defined as “the cognitive neuroscience of aesthetic experience.” It’s a field that seeks to understand the neural basis behind people’s experiences of aesthetics, extending beyond beauty and art to the built environment.

In some ways it’s simple. Architecture and design elements can elicit specific cognitive and emotional responses. Curved contours, for instance, are perceived to be more pleasant than rectilinear contours, activating part of the brain’s reward system. In other ways, because it’s the brain we’re talking about, neuroaesthetics can be just as complex as any other area of neuroscience. 

Today, mental health architecture is placing recovery at the center of institutional design goals instead of control.

“You take in your environment through all of your senses, and different senses activate different areas of your brain,” says Susan Magsamen, executive director of the neuroaesthetics initiative International Arts + Mind Lab, a program at the Pedersen Brain Science Institute at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “All of these sensory experiences add up in the brain and body, whether you …….


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