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Knoblauch: Disrupting Cultural Norms for Wellness

Joy Knoblauch in the Marriott Marquis in Atlanta. The building was designed by John Portman, whose work is studied by undergraduate architecture students in her theory course each year.
Monday, January 3, 2022

Joy Knoblauch discusses her research from a hotel room in Atlanta where she is researching worker resistance to early computer screens. Sitting on the floor, she explains the history of problems caused by chairs and the way she converted her dresser into a standing desk during the pandemic. Knoblauch, an associate professor of architecture at Taubman College, studies the history of environments for work along with all the ups and downs of such environments. She’s seen “a long history of discontent with what's been given to us as cultural norms for movement in the last 50 years,” especially with chairs and screens and the “constrained positions” they foster. “We need other ways of communicating that we are paying attention beyond just sitting extremely still,” she says.

Knoblauch started studying the history of environmental psychology because she was intrigued by the “unhappy relationship” that the field of architecture has had with social science. She explains that one view is to completely ignore any kind of scientific expertise about design, while the other side seems to “uncritically embrace anything that can be expressed quantitatively.” The latter group often employs design methods that are overly simplistic — and have incorporated “all the things that occupants like to joke about,” such as painting a room green “because that'll calm you down,” she says. She believes that the ideal solution would be to avoid the problems of each approach.

Her first book, The Architecture of Good Behavior, Psychology and Modern Institutional Design in Postwar America published in 2020, was an attempt to reconcile these two views. The book explores moments where the U.S. government wanted to manage its population better through architecture and focuses on ways that psychological expertise came into these construction programs.

For example, the book looks at the history of open prisons — where prisoners are free to come and go — which she said has been challenging to the profession of architecture. She was surprised and enlightened to hear that in the 1970s, some architects felt that these prisons shouldn’t be built at all—that maybe there shouldn’t be an architecture of prisons. Another chapter focused on ways to make hospital design more sustainable, palatable, and affordable. “Unfortunately, we’re still having that conversation,” she says. She also tackles the history of how to design mental health care facilities in a way that’s de-stigmatizing, which originated when President John F. Kennedy signed the Community Mental Health Centers Construction Act in 1963 to de-institutionalize mental health care.

Ever since she was in elementary school, Knoblauch wanted to be an architect. “I was just always drawing and designing houses,” she says. “If I could get my hands on graph paper, that was the best.” When she learned that you could go to college and “just draw houses,” she thought, “That sounds awesome.”

Her interest in her area of research stemmed simply from being a student of architecture. After she finished her Bachelor of Architecture at Cornell University, she worked briefly as a junior designer architect on housing projects financed by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (H.U.D.). She produced materials to ask residents their preferences and worked on specifications for materials. But “the regulations we were asked to follow didn’t make sense,” she says. Only carpets with a H.U.D. stamp could be used, even if there was a more affordable type available. “Those kinds of things prompted me to go back to grad school to try to figure out where all these regulations came from,” Knoblauch says.

Knoblauch’s next project at Taubman College is a critical history of ergonomics, including the origins of computer screens and the physical pains they’ve caused. Most of the available histories are told by the researchers and industry but looking back at the history, the story seems a little different. For example, current thinking in psychology, cognitive science, and movement studies suggest that the body and mind can no longer be separated, she explains.

She’s already put this approach into practice with a recent project for Guardian Industries, working with Taubman College faculty colleagues Robert Adams, John Marshall, and Upali Nanda. The team is moving forward on a new project with Andrew Ibrahim — an assistant professor of architecture who also is a physician and on the faculty at Michigan Medicine — on how the workplace can facilitate wellness for workers in the hospital using new types of spatial representations.

Knoblauch has been teaching at Taubman College for 10 years and finds it to be an ideal mix of teaching and research, design and social science. “A lot of the streams that I draw on are available here,” she says. As part of an examination of building practices that exacerbate climate change, she’s teaching a class on the history of timber, which has piqued student interest, given that so many are passionate about sustainable design. She notices that students are extremely interested in improving the profession as well as academia, shifting toward a healthier work culture and a healthier planet. The students “really are the reason for doing the job,” she says. Apologizing for the cliché, she adds, “They really are the hope for the future.”

Julie Halpert

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