The Dramatic Case of Romania’s Orphanages.

Chickens are the perfect illustration. Image: Ana Mombiedro

Not long ago I was one of the speakers at a symposium on childhood, inclusion, education and architecture that was being held in one of the auditoriums in the Museo Reina Sofía. The event focussed on the future of our young people, and had one overall objective: to explore ways of making education a participative process involving all of us.

In my presentation, I spoke to my audience about the relationship between learning and environment, from when we are still inside out mother’s womb through to adolescence. One of the things I told them about was something that impacted me greatly when I first started my research work:  the dramatic case of Romania’s orphanages.

Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu’s disastrous master plan to prohibit abortion and fine families with less than five children as a means of increasing the country’s human capital led to a situation of extreme poverty.

The result, discovered after Ceausescu’s death, was over 170,000 children who had been placed in public institutions (orphanages) lacking any resources with which to give them a worthy childhood.

When Western research groups gained access to these children’s homes – where the child-carer ratio was sometimes as high as 15:1 – they found that the youngsters had not developed the motor and cognitive skills that corresponded to their ages.

One particularly important conditioning factor was their almost total lack of contact with the outside world. Isolated from adults who could show them affection or other children with whom they could interact, and confined to their cots for several years, these children suffered from chronic motor and cognitive impairment.

Contact with the outside world during our life is crucial for the development of the nervous system. The primary limbic system begins to develop while we are still in our mother’s womb, and the basic mechanisms for understanding our body and our environment are established during the first four years of our life, when interaction with our environment teaches us about such apparently elemental things as gravity (things falling to the floor) and density (we can’t hold liquid in our hands).  Experience teaches us more than a thousand words ever could.

But if we are deprived of an environment with all the required stimuli, the neuronal connections in our head which encode how the environment functions won’t work and so we won’t be ready to progress to the next level. This doesn’t only happen during childhood: it happens all through our life.

We all know free-range chicken eggs are a little better than eggs laid by organic chickens and much, much better than eggs from battery chicken farms. Free-range chickens live and grow in an environment rich in natural stimuli, in contact with other chickens, while battery chickens are enclosed in small cages, with hardly any room to move and totally isolated from the outside world – like the children in the Romanian orphanages.

And so, my point is:  What kind of people are being produced by the environments we architects design?  In the future, will human beings be classified as free-range, organic or battery people?

Text translated by Andrew V. Taylor
Ana Mombiedro, Toledo 1987. Arquitecta y docente formada en Neurociencia y Percepción. Ana, aboga por un mundo construido que gire en torno a las sensaciones y emociones de sus habitantes. En su trabajo ofrece respuestas a preguntas relacionadas con el confort sensorial, y explica cómo nos influye el entorno en las diferentes etapas de nuestra vida. Compagina la investigación en Neuroarquitectura con la docencia y la co-dirección de Qualia-estudio, un despacho de arquitectura deslocalizado que utiliza la evidencia científica como mecanismo de proyecto.

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