Cocoon House by Paul Healy

Physiology of Space

July 19, 2019

One of my favorite architects from the middle of the 20th century is Paul Rudolph.  One of my favorite relatives is my mother-in-law. Rudolph helped make the Sarasota School of Architecture widely known. My mother-in-law lives near some of his famous houses, and she regularly sends me local articles about his work. 

Recently, she shared an article about a house he designed with Ralph Twitchell in the 1950’s called the Healy Guest House, affectionately known as the Cocoon House. I’ve had the chance to visit this house, and a quote from the article rang very true to my architectural tendencies:

The Healy Cottage taught me that the physiological nature of the space in every building was really more important than the form of the structure.

-Paul Rudolph

Clearly form is important, but being concerned with the physiological nature of space is equally so.  I had to stop and consider what that means to me.  What is the physiological nature of space? Here is how I break it down…

Physiology is the branch of biology that deals with the normal functions of living organisms and their parts. It’s understanding how we move, breathe, eat … essentially how we live. Physiology of space would then be understanding the functions of the space and the parts that allow it to have function. This includes how the physiology of the space allows humans to interact with it, from the tactile aspects of the space to the interaction of light, sound, and volume with the mind. In short, how the physical aspects of the space allow it to have a function that positively impacts the human experience.

Rudolph actually felt that the Healy Guest House was not successful with respect to the physiology of the space – this was the lesson he learned. Of the house, he went on to say that it was:

OK on the outside, but the interior was not successful. The apparent instability of the sagging ceiling and the thrusting of space upward to the perimeter, inviting you to leave – this violated the essential nature of an intimate, domestic space.

-Paul Rudolph, on Healy Cottage

It can be surprising, reading a hero’s comments about his own work.  The interior space does have an incredibly open feel and connection to the outside, particularly to the canal over which it is partially situated. But this was not the only feel that Rudolph was going for with the design – he wanted something intimate, comforting. 

I think most architects believe the experience of the interior space is equally as important as the form and sculpture of the structure, but it is good to be reminded. After all, we spend 90% of our time inside these structures and very little time viewing them from the outside.


Featured image By Architecttype – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=75167501