An Architectural Installation Shows How to Build for People with Dementia
In a room toward the back of the Venice Arsenale, videos project onto the floor of a pitch-dark room into a rectangle of light. The 16 films, each just 16 minutes long, all begin with hand-drawn architectural blueprints. But as the minutes unspool, the projections bloom into colorful, complex patterns. The effect is disorienting—exactly as its creators intended.
The installation, “Losing Myself,” is the Irish pavilion at this year’s Architectural Biennale. It’s meant to be a visual metaphor for the way people with neurodegenerative diseases experience the built environment. As a disorder like Alzheimer’s disease progresses, familiar places can grow increasingly foreign and confusing. The effect can be like living in a “continuous present tense,” say architects Niall McLaughlin and Yeoryia Manolopoulou, who designed the installation; you can never quite remember what room you came from, or plan what room you’ll go to next.
The effect is especially poignant in the Arsenale, because the blueprints all depict the Alzheimer’s Respite Center in Dublin—a building designed for people with Alzheimer’s disease. McLaughlin and Manolopoulou invited 16 architects to draft blueprints of the center on tracing paper atop a glass-topped desk, while they filmed the sketches from beneath. “We encouraged the drafters to study the building, but to allow their drawings to be influenced by their own memories and preoccupations,” McLaughlin says. “When you or I remember our experience, we rewrite the story, overlaid with other influences, thoughts and stimuli.” These scattered influences gave rise to the tableau that’s now playing on repeat in Venice, and that you can watch in full here:
“Losing Myself” is part of a larger research project. McLaughlin and Manolopoulou are documenting six months’ worth of interviews with people with dementia, those people’s families, neuroscientists, psychologists, anthropologists, and policymakers who advocate for the aging population. The hope, Manolopoulou says, is that these insights will encourage architects to design spaces with fewer physical barriers and meaningful landmarks to create accessibility for people living with dementia. Those are vague design parameters, especially compared to an accessibility feature like a wheelchair ramp. But it’s a start for McLaughlin and Manolopoulou, who are adamant that architects consider the experiences of others—especially those who can’t always remember or process those experiences for themselves.