Jennifer Sigler

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40: Well, Well, Well

Editors’ Letter

“If you are calling to schedule a new patient appointment, please press the star key.”

I should have pressed the star right away, but I kept listening: “For colorectal, liver, pancreatic, biliary, or gastric cancer, please press one. For bladder, prostate, kidney, or lung cancer, please press two. For esophageal, head and neck, or thyroid cancer, please press three …”

As the menu of illnesses unfolded, I traced a mental map of my body, now a territory defined by disease, with neat borders segmenting zones of expertise.

The anonymous voice reorganized my organs according to the logic of a cutting-edge hospital—an amalgam of wings and wards smoothly linked by slick hallways and automatic doors, all governed and maintained by a legion of uniformed physicians, nurses, technicians, and administrators.

“All other callers, please stay on the line,” added my impassive tour guide, “and an assistant will be with you shortly.”

If only health were as clear-cut as pressing a single button on a telephone; as certain as neat arrows guiding patients through a hospital maze or the “ding” of an elevator opening to a gleaming reception area. If only it were as uncomplicated as counting calories, using hand sanitizer, or wearing sunscreen.

Barbara Hammer, frame from Sanctus, 1990.

But health, and the information around it, is messy. As are our bodies and the systems intended to help sustain them. No anatomical chart, in its immaculate precision, can articulate the ooze of our fluids and secretions, or our sensations of pain and fear. Or the strain of accumulating medical bills. Or the clash between the cult of wellness and rampant addiction. Or the inequality of access to basic hygiene, nutrition, and medical care. Like health itself, our power—as individuals, citizens, and designers—to heal or to harm ourselves and the spaces in which we dwell is full of contradictions.

These contradictions are what generated this issue of Harvard Design Magazine. “Well, Well, Well” explores some of the tensions and transformations of the landscape of health and illness. As both designers and inhabitants, we create this landscape, and in turn, must navigate our own well-being within it. But the rules of wellness continue to change—along with political events, science and technology, and nature itself. Architecture’s panaceas are not without expiration dates, and might even turn out to do more harm than good.

In the examination room, liminally garbed in a flimsy hospital kimono and barcoded bracelet, I eye the doctor’s crisp white coat and await his crisp answers. But health and illness are not black and white—not for caregivers, for patients, or for designers. When in doubt, please stay on the line.