The philia fog

The colours of Autumn are perhaps the envy of every other season: rust-orange aflame, crimson deep enough to swallow the light of a thousand suns, the trace of transition from the tip of the leaf to the bough. It is no surprise that at this time our unspoken connection with the natural world envelopes us most strongly. Even the sedentarily committed are drawn to walk, to kick through the heaped flags of summer. No wonder, then, that such feelings are talked of in terms of love – to be precise, in one of the four forms of love described by the ancient Greeks, ‘philia’ sharing a cuddle with eros, agape and storge. The term ‘biophilia’ was gifted us by the social scientist Erich Fromm (1900-1980), in an addendum to one of his major works describing it as ‘love for humanity and nature’. Of course, right now it is the latest incarnation of the grail being relentlessly and competitively pursued by the workplace community in the cause of wellbeing.

For a moment, a word on the word. Aristotle believed that philia implied mutuality, and denied that it could be given to inanimate objects. He considered that philia is a necessary, noble and affectionate friendship, where ‘the friend is also fond of us’. I’ve put quite a few plants in buildings and been taken by their beauty and contribution, but never considered that they might have felt the same way about me. If only I had known. That said the usage and meaning of words changes over time, and expressions are sought for new, dormant or subconscious ideas.

Which leads us to the pathology. When we consider how those in lab coats understand philia, we begin to encroach upon the idea of morbid fondness and obsessive love. This is not a historical understanding, it’s very much in the present. Even the Oxford English Dictionary describes a philia as an ‘abnormal love for a specified thing’. For this reason the word has never sat easily, irrespective of Erich’s gift and its uptake by many since. We have adopted it, a little like a porcupine adopting a pineapple.

While the race to the printers is on, with just about every research body known or recently formed for the purpose up and at ’em for the right to wear flowers in their hair, perhaps we ought to take a moment to consider what it actually means. Setting aside the misleading surveys and statistics, in workplace terms it is essentially three things – natural daylight, planting and natural phenomena (including the use of natural materials), and views of the second when they are positioned external to the space by virtue of fenestration to allow the penetration of the first. Those who decry simplification will inevitably call a walk in the woods ‘forest bathing’, but that’s essentially what the current furore is all about.

Of course while this is nothing new, much of the wisdom and practice pre-dating the keeping of written records, we have somehow simply lost touch with it, forgotten that allowing daylight into a building for the benefit of as many occupants as possible is vital (even if they do spend all day with their nose pressed against a screen), that internal planting brings colour, life and energy to a space, that natural materials bring warmth and calm, and that views from inside to external natural settings provide an inspiring and stress-relieving reminder that we used to all live outside for most of the time once. The most important of all of these, and one twelfth of the #elementalworkplace, is natural daylight. The others need to be managed as best they can be. There aren’t many views of migrating caribou in Broadgate.

My plea to the workplace industry is a simple one. We need reminding of our innate connection with nature and the importance of considering it in architecture and workplace design. Some are already doing so in interesting ways. Please don’t make this another game of one-up-person-ship, another clarion-call for clipboard wielding assessors, another overplayed overhyped and over-researched idea that ends up eating itself, like the rest that went before. People need light, need nature, need connection, they don’t need jasmine growing up through their keyboard because it’s the only chance of recognition. We can call it natural design and lose the uncomfortable Frommism. The re-connection with nature should be like an Autumn walk for someone who rarely walks – a most beautiful, gentle, personal discovery. We have a fantastic opportunity to make this possible. Why am I terrified?


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