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Healing, in its amorphous holism, doesn’t easily translate into a design brief or an architectural program. But a visit to the exhibition Design and Healing: Creative Responses to Epidemics at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum shows that healing is not altogether elusive, nor incompatible with design.

Co-curated by Boston-based MASS Design Group and Cooper Hewitt’s Ellen Lupton, the exhibition, which runs through February 20, highlights design interventions fueled by an indomitable spirit of care that cuts across cultures and disciplines—before and during the Covid-19 pandemic. Lupton was inspired, she said, by the variety of creative work “initiated by people and organizations, not big government agencies,” from zero-waste scrubs to daily information graphics.

Danielle Elsener Scrub Kit.

Danielle Elsener’s zero-waste open-source scrub kit. Photo © Cooper Hewitt, click to enlarge.

Architecture anchors but doesn’t dominate the show, which ranges in scale from virus particles to bodies, objects, buildings, cities, and regions. Select hospital-design projects by MASS demonstrate how professional architects can magnify their impact by partnering with community advocates—and learning from history. For example, the firm’s GHESKIO Tuberculosis Hospital in Haiti, with its directional cross-ventilation, courtyard-facing verandas, and thermal roof plenum, is presented next to Alvar and Aino Aalto’s Paimio Sanitorium, a model of humane design in which the designers “considered everything from chairs and sinks to closets and beds,” and “leveraged the best science available,” the curators write. Healing architecture, though sanitary, is not strictly minimal. It can be layered and generous.

The curators do not shy from the ethical and political dimensions of healing. That’s a wise move, since the power of healing as a concept—and as a call to action—seems to derive from its blend of empirical data, qualitative perceptions, and value judgments. People who feel uncared for, researchers say, are more likely to mistrust public health campaigns. That’s part of why healing is about social and environmental justice as well as personal and community health.

Norwegian design studio ANTI’s Ventizolve.

Norwegian design studio ANTI’s Ventizolve, an emergency naloxone kit that can temporarily reverse the effects of a lethal opioid overdose. Photo © Cooper Hewitt

Included in the show are mutual-aid toolkits, activist posters, and tennis player Naomi Osaka’s face masks emblazoned with the names of Black people who died at the hands of police. These, along with turban- and hijab-friendly face masks designed in 2020 are part of Cooper Hewitt’s Responsive Collecting Initiative, a novel approach in which staff across the museum, not just curators, nominate objects for acquisition.

Occupying a series of galleries on the museum’s ground floor, Design and Healing closes with a dramatic sense of compression and release. The wood-paneled walls of the Cooper Hewitt’s former Carnegie mansion are obscured as visitors pass through a tent module that evokes the field hospitals hastily erected in American cities last year—at least one of which MASS helped design on the fly. A burst of light and space awaits on the other side of the tent: the former solarium, reconceived as a “breathing space” furnished with floppy shag cushions of colorful, recycled fabric. I could feel my body and mind relax.

Daylight and fresh air—more specifically, the management of air that vulnerable patients and caregivers inhale and exhale—take center stage in one of two excellent books that accompany the exhibition, The Architecture of Health: Hospital Design and the Construction of Dignity. Author and MASS founding principal Michael P. Murphy Jr. opens the volume with a recollection of visiting his father in a hospital and feeling “shocked” at the facility’s inhospitable, inhuman aspects. Advocating for “architecture as a human right,” Murphy offers a typological study of hospitals over the past thousand years, then analyzes dozens of fascinating case studies, frequently returning to themes of dignity and justice. A second publication gathers and contextualizes works from the exhibition: a new edition of Health Design Thinking: Creating Products and Services for Better Health, coauthored by Lupton and physician Bon Ku.

It remains to be seen whether design can help bridge the gap between what curator Lupton calls, with reference to vaccination rates, “unprecedented scientific victories and unexpected failures of communication.” But with Design and Healing, a parade of creative and critical innovations lets us glimpse the seeds of a more caring world sprouting from the cracks of institutional authority.