Why Are Rehab Centers So Ugly? (Part II)

I’ve been a professional fine artist for half my life. The aesthetics of my surroundings are as important to me as the quality of the air I breathe. A vast empty wall in my living space makes me feel as though I am in prison. I can make a case for the notion that kitsch is morally wrong.

But is this just about my personal quirks? Do the aesthetics of surroundings really matter enough that hospitals, rehab centers and doctor’s offices ought to be concerned about them?

It has been established that the environment of psychiatric hospitals plays a significant role in both patient and staff functioning. The recommendations read like a manual for holistic health–natural or full-spectrum light, access to nature, calming colors, comfortable furniture, and access to private spaces. Artwork (soothing, not exciting) is recommended.

So it would seem that the converse–bright or fluorescent lights, bare white walls, ‘highly reverberent spaces’ (a psychiatric hospital no-no), and windowless rooms might be stressful for patients and staff alike. When we are in stressful environments, our bodies produce stress hormones which inhibit immune functioning.

Why Are Rehab Centers So Ugly? (Part I)

That’s a rhetorical question. I may never know why rehab centers are ugly, because I’m not going to physical therapy school, and you may never understand a system until you’ve worked within it.

While I was researching a career in physical therapy, however, I interviewed at several institutions where physical therapy takes place. I vowed that I would not attempt to redecorate any of the environments in which I found myself, or even bring up the issue; this vow lasted about fifteen minutes.

I used to believe that hospitals, doctor’s offices and cubicles at Pacific Gas & Electric were the nadir of modern working environments, with the exception of meat packing plants and third-world sweatshops. Then I interviewed at X Physical Therapy Center in Philadelphia.

Whoa, nelly.

The above image is not the center that I visited; it is infinitely nicer. Note the elements of actual color, however frigid; the matching furniture, the plants–possibly not even fake. Flickering fluorescent lights, however: check. Acoustic tile, check. Windowless basement, check. Bare walls, hideous floors, musty odor, uncomfortable furniture, people wearing scrubs: present in force.

If this were a movie set, it would represent an Argentine military prison, circa 1977. Your mind is not clueless–it walks into a place like this and knows you’re about to be tortured. If relaxation is a healing state of mind, you will not achieve it here.

I doubt this is an accident. Why else would they all look like this? Maybe they do it to signify that This Is Serious Medicine, not snake oil, like all that ‘alternative medicine’ BS. Perhaps they wish to demonstrate that they aren’t wasting your premiums on interior design. Possibly the Western healthcare establishment is entirely oblivious to aesthetics.

But, just possibly, it’s about power. Because beautiful places send signals of their own: you are important. You are cared for. You are healthy, wealthy and safe.

Conversely, fluorescent cubicles are where the Little People must work, play, live and die. Ugly=Low Status. It’s as if our culture expects that sick and injured people understand, in their bones, that they are second class citizens. By getting sick, you have sinned. If you want to rejoin society, you must endure Purgatory.