As I entered this anonymous café in Kyoto, which I will never forget, I began to gain a sort of sublime feeling. I was unaware of what made me feel that way, but had to decipher the reasons behind that spatial influence.

What makes a space healing?

There was a psychological effect in that space that I learned later to be Yūgen, the Japanese word for the sense of mystery that drives someone to experience subtle feelings of wonder. It was exemplified by the contrast of shadows and warm orange lights, which reflected on the grains of wood that held the Machiya-style café. Natural elements were spread. Plants were sprayed at the entrance and on miscellaneous corners. The space seemed to exhibit the same kind of warmth that I often looked for in people; natural, mysterious, and beautifully balanced.

Aside from the sense of awe that began to steer my emotions and command my mood, I realized that I shared that entrance with a dear friend. I then understood that we have strong happy emotions not only towards the most beautiful objects and spaces but to those moments that we share good stories in. My story in that café began with the space, but ended up with the person whom I accompanied.

We establish emotional connections with a rusty swing that we swayed along with a friend, a trivial gadget that we used with a younger sister, or a cup of coffee under a leaking ceiling with our mother.

adf-web-magazine-Happy memories on rusty swings the four healing walls

Happy memories on rusty swings that reveal the priority of moments with the right people and the depth of emotional connections which sometimes surpass luxury and space - Image: No attribution required

Our emotions assign value, and our favorite objects are those that we have a story with. The element of emotion is what we hinge our happiness on, many times even more than the cognitive. We adopt things that not only work very well, and look very good, but also things that allow us to tell a story, and that often includes people.

Nevertheless, the same way we design experiences in a space, I believe that spaces can shape and design our experiences in return. Spaces like our homes, in particular, are significant to us, and yet we don’t consider pausing and reflecting over the interior environment that surrounds us, particularly now with homes merging with the office and adapting to it.

How should architects and interior designers exhibit the empathy and sensitivity required to design healing spaces for people, spaces that trigger happy emotions; generate trust, gratitude, comfort, contentment, excitement, and confidence? More importantly, what is a healing space?

“I think a healing space is a tranquil space that allows one to be in the flow, deeply immersed while being at ease with oneself. An example of such a space is the Japanese tearoom, where a host and his guests relax and enjoy tea in a small and intimate room. Every detail - from the tatami floor and walls to the adjacent garden - is designed to evoke a feeling of calmness. The Japanese tearoom is a metaphor of a protected yet unbound space, akin to a Zen state of the mind. It embodies harmony between man and nature, host and guest,” explained Jessie Er, an interior designer and Chado practitioner based in Singapore.

adf-web-magazine-Japanese confectionary museum in Kyoto 1  the four healing walls

A tea room at the Japanese confectionary museum in Kyoto - Images by Jessie Er


Nature is often an element that many people consciously link to healing. When asked about healing spaces, Jinan Hammoud said it right away; “I imagine plants for sure, and sounds of nature,” said the practicing architect in Saudi Arabia, “Spaces should be transparent, and bright and with a good source of light.”


Plants, transparency, and good lighting - Image: No attribution required

People often underestimate the healing effects of interior design. But design might take a toll on our emotions, and space can set a default line for the emotions we feel.

I caught myself laboring to free my mind from matter as I began to realize that the ability to focus required an audacity to live in a minimal uncluttered space. Only a soul that is filled will have the courage to live in a nearly empty space, I thought. Clutter is crippling to the mind and the soul. The lack of random and unimportant physical objects steers the mind away from the trivial, towards the key matters and goals that we are usually frightened to face.


A nearly empty space, if not too dull, and with the right elements may aid in focus - Image: No attribution required

Yet, perhaps clutter is inevitable for some, because life itself is muddled and never fails to bring randomness into our lives. For some people, clutter may present itself as a filler for life’s stubborn cruel circumstances. Spaces, at times, may heal with their clutter!

Milica Rakovic, a practicing architect in Serbia, expressed her opinion to Aoyama Design Forum, saying: “I think a healing space means different things to different people and at different times. For me and right now, I do need distractions, so I imagine my healing space having different activities and interferences that would shut down my thoughts and provide distractions. I wouldn’t want a calm space where I am alone with my thoughts, at least at this time in my life.”

Between spaces with clutter and empty spaces with none, some would argue that healing cannot be helped by a space at all!

“I am a person who doesn’t believe in places,” said Rasha Chehadeh, a Lebanese interior designer, “but that contentment comes from a person’s interior, not the interior of their space. Whether I am in the Maldives, close to nature, or on the moon, I believe that I will move what I hold inside of me. If I am miserable, I will move the despair, and if I have a peaceful state of mind, I will be well-grounded in my next harbor. I don’t believe in a healing setting. My environment might facilitate healing, but I believe that the real healing space is inside, my soul.”


We are a small thing in this big world, but we often forget that we also hold this big world inside of us - Image: No attribution required

Apart from internal values and strengths, there are codes that designers need to take into consideration while designing the four healing walls, like manipulating the light to form a Yūgen effect, or withdrawing lessons from natural patterns. Like the tree which balances its thick bark with a softness in its leaves, rooms ought to exhibit a balance between sharp and soft elements, and like the healthy river that is in constant motion, a room may require a gradual update as the person who resides in it evolves, because the river which gets blocked stagnates and soon collects rubbish and debris.

While there are objective laws that contribute to making a space look exquisitely healing, design and the four healing walls can be very subjective as well. Designers should never neglect the most vital aspect of design, which is the point of view of the dwellers, their values, and strengths, which mirrors them.