A Conversation with Tye Farrow

“There is no such thing as neutral space. What we create either causes health or erodes our ability to thrive, socially, economically, and culturally.” 

The idea that our surroundings affect how we feel isn’t hard to understand. Imagine the difference between your mood when you’re walking down a broken sidewalk between ramshackle buildings and six lanes of noisy traffic and when you’re strolling along a tree-lined cobblestone lane with the smell of freshly baked bread wafting through the air. 

This is one example shared by Tye Farrow — architect, writer, and world leader focused on creating architecture that lifts the human spirit — as he introduces the concept of salutogenesis. Salutogenesis is the study of the origins of health, on factors that produce well-being. It’s the opposite of pathogenesis, which focuses on the causes of disease. 

“We know 8,000 causes or symptoms of disease,” Farrow likes to say, “but there are only 80 known causes or symptoms of health. That’s because we find what we look for.” 

Farrow has dedicated his career, and his firm’s architectural practice, to looking for more causes of positive health, by designing buildings that promote well-being. 

About twenty years ago, Farrow’s firm was building a number of structures where healing takes place: hospitals, cancer centers, and the like. “As we worked on these projects, I began to connect the dots between what we build and its impact on the physical health of people in those buildings.” That sparked his interest in salutogenic design.

Then, a couple of years before the pandemic began, Farrow stumbled upon a new program in its first year at the University of Venice, a Masters degree in neuroscience applied to architectural design. Architects have always known that buildings can affect how we feel, that buildings can make us feel better or worse. But advancements in neuroscience have made it easier than ever to research, examine, and quantify how our brains change based on what we see and what spaces we inhabit. Farrow joined the Masters program.

“We were taught by the world’s leading neuroscientists,” he said. “I’d gone through two degrees at two great universities and I’d never encountered this stuff, how our body is like a very big radar dish for our mind.”

The intersection of neuroscience and architecture as a subject of scientific research is an emerging area, still relatively new, but Farrow became a disciple and an expert, and now he’s an ambassador, too. 

In a recent conversation, he referenced a study of 2,000 classrooms across the west coast of the United States. The study identified the quality of light in all of those classrooms, and then examined student performance on mathematics and English exams. The results? Students in classrooms with a good quality of daylight performed significantly better than those in classrooms with poor quality of daylight. 

“There is no such thing as neutral space,” Farrow says. “The idea with the intersection of neuroscience and architecture is to begin to really think of how space can be an accelerant to create the conditions in which we can thrive and prosper. The science is backing up this approach now in an extraordinary way.”

Farrow is an engaging storyteller, a characteristic that serves him well as he lectures on neuroscience and architecture all over the globe. His new book, Constructing Health, explores all of these ideas in great depth, and makes an impressive case that shaping our environments with intention can support our physical and neurological health and well-being. 

As we spoke, it became clear that his stories, and the research that inspires them, apply not just to architecture, but to urban planning, to politics and business, to, in fact, the human condition. “We often focus architecture on what it is,” Farrow says. “But the important thing isn’t what architecture is, it’s what it does.”

The Denver Architecture Foundation will host Farrow for a members-only lecture and book signing on Thursday, May 16. He’ll get more specific about the ways design can enhance human performance and well-being. We know fans of architecture will leave inspired. We think anyone listening will.  

Constructing Health, an Evening with Tye Farrow

Thursday, May 16, 5:45 to 8 p.m.

5:45 p.m. doors open to Ricketson Auditorium

6:15 p.m. lecture and Q&A

7:15 p.m. cocktail reception and book signing

Tickets available here