How Frank Gehry Could Reboot Health in America
The good folks over at Brad Pitt’s Make it Right Foundation just unveiled a new home built in New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward designed by no other than the internationally celebrated architect Frank Gehry. While the 83-year Gehry is best known for his jaw dropping museum and concert hall designs, the simple but important statement made by his participation in this project aimed at rebuilding lives and a community in the wake of Hurricane Katrina cannot be overstated. People are paying attention.
Imagine for a moment if Gehry, whom many call the Frank Lloyd Wright of our time, joined other civic-minded architects (like the other 21 architects on Pitt’s project) who tackle equally important projects like homes for Wounded Warriors or re-imagining buildings for earth quake victims in Japan. Good things happen, when good and creative architects tackle important issues.
Here’s a Big Idea that has the potential not only to change the health of an entire generation, but create a paradigm shift in how we treat and understand disease in a modern world our ancient body scarcely recognizes. What if the wizards of steel, lumber and glass joined for a Bloomberg Brigade-like moment and said they would not design any new buildings or retrofit any old ones unless those developers set aside space for full-time “in building” day care for infants still breast feeding and stipulated that tenants of those buildings adhered to corporate policies that provided mother’s the time they needed during work hours to nurture the most important members of our society. It’s great that we have laws in place to protect a mother’s right to breastfeed in the workplace, but does no good if there is no safe and private place to do so (or pump milk) supported by the employer and co-workers.
If you want to get an idea of what women think about breastfeeding in a modern world, look at the hundreds of comments at the bottom of a recent article by Jane Brody in the New York Times. This article is a good example of exactly what is wrong with the conversation. She, like so many, continue to ignore basic human biology and the importance of breast feeding for a mammal like ourselves. There is no need to frame this as a woman’s rights issue. This adds nothing to the conversation and only distracts from the reality that yes, life is going to be different than it was before child.
While people can argue til the (milk) cows come home, the mounting evidence that rising rates of c-section births and the breathtaking drop in breast feeding rates across all social economic groups is impacting the long term gut and immune system development of the child reveals we have a significant public health issue on our hands. Like all chronic disease, which often festers and lies almost unnoticed for years or even decades, the injury that is likely being done to these tiniest members of our species by ignoring Human Ecology 101 will continue to drain the coffers of this – and all governments – for generations.
If architects in Seattle can erect an ultra-green office building that is 100% off the grid, complete with composting toilets, heat from thermal wells drilled 400 feet beneath the building, and a 56,000 gallon on-site water collection, surely they could add a well-lit and private space for mother’s and a small staff. A small support staff that could be supported by a surcharge on per square foot rents to be paid by tenants, regardless of whether they employed any breast feeding moms at the time (just having men on your staff should be reason enough to participate).
With “living buildings” being the buzz phrase of the decade for architects, such an effort would seem logical. In fact, by getting architects behind this, they could easily insert the words “space and program for moms and a health of society” somewhere between the requirements of net-zero energy, squiggly light bulbs, and water systems for projects striving for the very cool Living Building Challenge. In fact, a building should not be allowed the trendy designation of “living” until it considers the full definition of sustainable and eco-friendly. Humans are, after all, part of this biosphere.
As a society, we will never achieve the health we aspire to until we come to grips with the realities of our biological past and its basic tenants. Kids are mammals, we need to treat them as so. If we all (and that means policy makers as well) got behind the idea that mothers and families need more support (a lot more) in the work place, community and in the home, then we have a chance. These new “living spaces” in buildings (and communities) could also serve the duel function of providing mothers and families with educational materials about the basics of human ecology and health and launch a while new way of learning about health and well-being. For so many new parents, the sum total of that education comes from a handful of books, websites, family, and goodie bags provided by formula companies handed to us as we stroll out of hospital with our new bundle of joy.
Things need to change.
*Brad, shoot Frank Gehry my “deets” – operators standing by.