Reconnecting with Nature: An Interview with Helena Van Vliet

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I first met Helena Van Vliet, a UPenn M Arch graduate and biophilic architect, in my Landscape/Ecology class, as a guest speaker, talking about our reconnection with nature. Her presentation slides captivated the students and invited a sense of wonder and comfort to the classroom. From that moment I asked her to become my mentor for my thesis project (The Design of a Biophilic Wellness Center for Orphans in Idlib, Syria). Her inspirational outlook on design and advocacy for biophilia is intriguing and presents the formula for our health and wellbeing in the built environment. I had the pleasure of having an enlightening evening with Helena in her beautiful sanctuary.

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What drew you to connect with nature?

From life experiences there was no real starting point. As a child I came to understand nature in an apple tree; it was a place of refuge for me after my brother died. I learned a great deal from that tree, from its smell, to its dappled light, and the different seasonal changes it underwent. I felt more at home with the tree than at my house. Ever since, I endeavor to make my projects connect people with nature.

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You’re an avid biophilia advocate, and you incorporate nature so well in your architecture. What would you like everyone to know about it?

Biophilia, as interpreted by E.O. Wilson and Stephen Kellert, is an innate evolutionary preference, a birthright for humans as biological organisms. It reminds us of who we are, effectively re-tuning  us towards homeostasis. Biophilic design is a vehicle to reconnect with ourselves through joy, delight, play, and the power of wonder and awe. It’s a meditative mindfulness experience. The design process includes biophilic elements and patterns as ingredients for recipes that promote  health, wellbeing and thus sustainability. We only sutain what sustains us.

What is the emotional experience you wanted to create in your home?

Refuge and sanctuary. Refuge, as a safe cozy place that holds memories of the family and children who grew up here - connecting us to nature, seasons and cycles  in that way. It’s a sanctuary and a place of quietude. I purposefully keep light low and amber-colored in the evening. Low light levels are soothing and de-stressing for the human body, and amber light does not interfere with natural melatonin levels in the body.

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What three books do you recommend people to read?

Mind in Architecture by Sarah Robinson

Birth Right by Stephen Kellert

Welcome to Your World: How the Built Environment Shapes Our Lives by Sarah Williams Goldhagen

What would you like to see more of happen in the future?

Beyond focusing on sustainable technologies a shift  towards implementing passive design as a natural first step for any sustainable building design process. A shift towards understanding design as the design of restorative joyful experiences rather than mere buildings. If we don’t design places that people will love  why build anything?

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Thank you Helena for an unforgettable evening, where I easily felt relaxed and mesmerized. Forever grateful for your support and knowledge to make the world a better, beautiful place.