Translating the human psyche into physical form, Jack Cooper explores how architecture could provide a relief from depression.

In the lead up to each issue, we challenge emerging designers to respond to the Frame Lab theme with a forward-looking concept. The arrival of COVID-19 has contributed to loneliness, stress, grief, anxiety and depression, highlighting the importance of fostering mental wellbeing. How can design help us cope with these particularly tumultuous times? What spaces and experiences do we need, and how should they look? For Frame 139, we asked four creative practices to share their ideas.

Built using locally sourced wood, Jack Cooper’s architectural proposal is a physical reflection of the symptomatic areas of the psyche of those dealing with depression. It’s designed to help occupants better understand their inner feelings and channel them creatively. Winner of a LionHeart Prize for Emotional Depth and Wellbeing and a graduate of Arts University Bournemouth, Cooper is now gaining professional experience at HollandGreen Architecture, Interiors and Landscapes in Buckinghamshire, England.

You wrote a thesis focused on normalizing depression. Why?

JACK COOPER: Because it is normal to feel depressed. According to my research, one in three people will have a mental health issue at some point, young adults and students included. Depression is a real issue we face as a society and yet there are still many stigmas attached to it. Therefore I think it’s important that every industry makes improvements to better help those with mental health conditions.

The architecture industry being one of them.

Indeed. Architects arguably impact society more than any other profession. The buildings we design have a lasting impact on the way people live and experience life. Our responsibility therefore extends beyond the walls of buildings. We have a duty to carefully design spaces across all scales that will have a positive impact on individuals’ mental health.

The buildings we design have a lasting impact on the way people live and experience life

And you have a suggestion that does just that.

Yes. Rather than focusing on curing depression, I envisioned a space that allows mental health sufferers to better understand their condition. Depression often leaves people searching for a reason why, but in reality there may not be a clear-cut answer to that question. What we can do is find better ways to cope with depression. But to do so, being away from external pressures is important. Therefore my architectural proposal is situated in the heart of a dense forest away from the rest of society. The location helps visitors – who are mainly young adults – to enter the building and to focus. The idea is to offer short stays, from two to four weeks. Students would learn more about themselves and their condition and ultimately be helped to develop new techniques to cope with it, techniques they can take back with them when they return to regular society.

The architecture reflects their inner feelings in order to offer a better understanding of those feelings

How does the architecture support these steps?

The building would be split into ‘depressive spaces’ and ‘relief spaces’. The former are a physical representation of the subconscious and symptomatic nebulous areas of the user’s psyche – tight, maze-like, disorientating and dark. It’s a physical metaphor to the visitors’ psychological feelings that allows them to identify with the building and rationalize their depression. The architecture reflects their inner feelings in order to offer a better understanding of those feelings. Juxtaposing these ‘depressive spaces’ are the relief spaces, which open up from darker corridors and offer a moment of clarity. They accommodate communal activities such as woodworking and cooking. The idea of these spaces is to shift energy away from intrinsically trying to understand one’s feelings towards channelling them creatively. They connect to the surrounding forest and let natural light in.

Get your copy of Frame 139 here.