A view inside the greenhouse at Dartmouth College. (Photo: Hannah Hoffman)

The Nature of Contrast:

How Dissimilarity Influences Our Emotions

Can you think of something you want right this moment? Perhaps a new phone, a significant other, or something as simple as a dessert.

Whatever it is, your desire is likely not based simply on the object itself. Think about it  who wants an iPhone 6 more: a person with an iPhone 5, or a person with a flip phone? Who crushes on someone more: a person in a stable relationship, or a person in a tumultuous one? Who craves a brownie sundae more: a person with a delicious cheesecake, or a person with a tasteless one?

Simply put, an object itself is not always what appears so attractive, but rather how greatly it differs from what we currently have. In such a way, our perspectives are often based on contrast. As a result, finally getting an item feels sweetest when the thing most drastically contrasts what we have  winning an iPhone 6 will make us happier if we have a flip phone than if we have an iPhone 5.


What is Escapist Architecture?

We can appreciate how this idea of contrast applies to phones and desserts, but can it be applied to items much larger, to emotions more significant than those associated with getting one’s way? Architecture presents an intruiging possibility, a new variety of design that I would like to call “escapist architecture.”

This type of room or building greatly contrasts the environment in which it is located; individuals who enter it thus “escape” the environment from which they came. It is well-known that environment can impact mood, but the contrast that escapist architecture provides can influence an even greater emotional effect, just as it does with objects as trivial as sundaes. Individuals designing a space can thus harness the power of escapist architecture to provide an intense emotional and even behavioral experience for those who visit.

It is well-known that environment can impact mood, but the contrast that escapist architecture provides can influence an even greater emotional effect.

As you explore this idea, it is important to keep in mind that the term “escapist” does not carry the negative connotations it does in some contexts. The word, as it is used in here, aims to imply only the idea of distraction from reality.


Getting a Closer Look:

An Example of Escapist Architecture

The idea of escapist architecture can be difficult to grasp. What does it look like? How can this style provide such an emotional experience? Shouldn’t a space have the same impact on an individual no matter where it is located? This website introduces a compelling example of escapist architecture  the greenhouse at Dartmouth College – in the hopes that readers can answer these questions, more clearly understand the style, and appreciate its implications.

Because the concept of escapist architecture depends so heavily on the location of a building and the feelings that this setting evokes, we will begin by exploring the environment that surrounds the Dartmouth greenhouse so that this setting can be contrasted with the space itself and its emotional impact.


New England Winter and SAD:

How Dartmouth’s Environment Effects Affect

Along with Dunkin’ Donuts, lobster rolls, and horrible drivers, one of the hallmarks of New England is its winter season. Any collection of postcards from the region contains pictures that feature idyllic wonderlands blanketed with snow, with skiers racing off in the background and children putting finishing touches on a snowman. However, although initially exciting and beautiful, these months don’t entail just ice sculptures and hot chocolate. They also promise temperatures that drop below zero, a sun often hidden by thick clouds, dry air that bites exposed skin, and piles of snow once white and fluffy that transform to brown, deflated slush.

One common phenomenon that emerges during this season is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), characterized by sad, anxious, and lonely feelings that result from nothing more than winter weather. Even if these individuals don’t realize it, nearly thirty percent of people living in such environments experience at least a mild form of this disorder.

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Outside the Life Science Center at Dartmouth College. (Photo: Hannah Hoffman)

Dartmouth College, located in Hanover, New Hampshire, is not immune to New England weather nor some of its unfortunate effects. On a typical winter day in 2015, sunlight reached the ground during roughly 51% of daytime hours; the average low temperature every day was 7.6ºF, the average humidity was 58%, and, given the 8.3 feet of snow that fell throughout the season, there was certainly no greenery to be seen. Here are just a few of the comments students make about the environment:

“The weather here just really drains me.” Danni Kohut, a student at the college

“I miss the sun! It would honestly… make me much happier.” –Sam Kocen, another student

“It can get so cold and colorless that it’s sort of hard to be in a good mood when you have to go outside.” –Azhar Hussain, yet another student 

Although frequently rated as one of the most enjoyable campuses to live on, Dartmouth College clearly has an issue on its hands. Mental health is considered an increasingly pressing concern at universities across the globe, so the fact that something as simple as weather could contribute to this pattern should certainly concern any administration member, let alone students at the institution.  

The solution to this problem presents itself somewhat obviously: if cold, dry, bland weather somehow contributes to individuals’ sadness, why not try to put these people in a better climate? Here is where the idea of escapist architecture becomes relevant  it presents itself in the form of a greenhouse.


Summer in the Winter:

The Escapist Design of the Greenhouse

Standing in the elevator of the science building at Dartmouth College, you rub your hands together and try to warm them up as best you can. You press the button to the fourth floor, labeled “greenhouse.” You soon arrive and step out into a dreary, cold room with a single window through which you see the even drearier, colder winter day you just came from. You turn right to face a large metal door, open it, and the snow on your shoes quickly melts away.

You feel as if you have just walked into summer – complete with bright, seemingly natural light and what feel like hot rays of sun. Even the air feels different – it is perfectly humid and simply breathable compared to that of the dry winter.

You notice just as quickly the appearance of the room. Three of the four walls are completely made of glass, covered from top to bottom with plants of every color and every size. Having spent so long in winter, you have almost forgotten what green really looks like until this moment.

No matter where you stand in the room, you are enveloped by this comforting, warm, lively jungle, a polar opposite to the grey, colorless outdoors. Because these trees and flowers and grasses cover so much of the walls, even if you glance towards the outdoors, you cannot see the landscape below – the only thing that can possibly enter the room through these windows is light. For the time you are here, you truly forget that it is ten degrees and snowing just beyond that glass.



How did you feel as you experienced walking into the greenhouse? A sense of relief? Relaxation? Did you feel as if you moved (or, better yet, escaped) from winter to summer? These sensations and emotions underlie the essence of escapist architecture: the greenhouse possibly helped you, as it does many, depart from the mindset of one environment by providing an entirely new setting.

As you might have noticed through the description and simulation of entering the greenhouse, the room’s four most noticeable traits that contrast the winter weather of Hanover are its light, warmth, humidity, and decoration. To learn more about how the greenhouse controls these four features to simulate the conditions of summer, click here.

The greenhouse possibly helped you, as it does many, depart from the mindset of one environment by providing an entirely new setting.

Ultimately, as articulated by those who designed it, the architecture of the greenhouse makes the space “independent from… the outside environment,” essentially eliminating elements of the outdoors in order to create an ideal environment for plants to grow in, one similar to summer. (JDS)

So, how exactly does this summery environment impact users? Might its light, its warmth, its air, and its scenery influence visitors in such a way that their mindsets change? Ultimately, a phenomenon called the Gruen transfer, the known effects of light therapy, a study about environment and emotion, and the opinions of Dartmouth students and faculty all provide a resounding answer to this question: yes  the greenhouse seems to transport individuals into an altered mentality, one of relaxation and an enhanced mood.

We will next take a look at each of these pieces of evidence to help us appreciate the effect of the greenhouse and, ultimately, of escapist architecture.


The Greenhouse and Gruen:

A common phenomenon in shopping malls helps explain the effect of the greenhouse

Because it so successfully regulates environment, the greenhouse seems a perfect extrapolation of an idea called the Gruen transfer, a widely-experienced effect that demonstrates how atmosphere can impact mood and behavior. This term identifies a common phenomenon that occurs in shopping malls: the very environment of these spaces  including their temperature and decoration  transports individuals into a consumer mindset. This effect helps us appreciate just how much environment and contrast can impact mood, an important idea in analyzing the greenhouse and in understanding escapist architecture. To learn more about the connection between the greenhouse and Gruen, click here.

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Westfield Garden State Plaza – a shopping mall in Paramus, New Jersey. (Photo: en.wikipedia.org)


Light Therapy:

A common treatment for SAD helps explain the effect of the greenhouse

One way in which the greenhouse influences mood mimics and enhances a technique called light therapy, which is commonly used to treat Seasonal Affective Disorder. This approach is as simple as it sounds: patients expose themselves to an artificial light that gives off heat. This exposure physically changes individuals’ mentalities; a study performed by the Journal of Psychiatry and Neuroscience found that light therapy increases the number of neurotransmitters in the brain that are associated with positive moods. With a success rate of over seventy-five percent, this technique is the very first suggested treatment for SAD.

The greenhouse at Dartmouth seems to take light therapy one step further: if something as simple as a strong lightbulb can be used to cure seasonal depression, why not an entire room whose sole purpose is to mimic summer? Individuals who enter the greenhouse do not just sit in front of a light, in front of warmth, but they are completely immersed in these comforting features. Visitors become entirely detached from the weather that so often evokes negative moods, the very intention of light therapy. In such a way, the greenhouse seems to be not only an equivalent to the most popular treatment for seasonal depression, but an even better version.


A view out of a window in the greenhouse. This picture portrays the intense light that can enter the greenhouse – even on a winter day. (Photo: Hannah Hoffman)


The Dartmouth Opinion:

Student and faculty perspectives help explain the effect of the greenhouse

Members of the Dartmouth community agree with what the Gruen transfer and light therapy suggest: the summery environment of the greenhouse truly can improve visitors’ moods during the winter season. Of thirty individuals studying on the first floor of Baker Library, the largest library on campus, only eleven said that being in the space improves their mood; of thirty individuals studying in the greenhouse, every one said that being in the space improves their mood.

Percent of Dartmouth community members who experience mood improvement working in Baker Library (36.7%) and in the greenhouse (100%). Thirty individuals were interviewed from each space.

Percent of Dartmouth community members who experience mood improvement working in Baker Library (~36.7%) and in the greenhouse (100%). Thirty individuals were interviewed from each space.

When asked to comment on what about their state of mind the greenhouse improves, participants provided answers that varied from “stress” to “sadness” to “general anxiety.” Every one of these individuals correlated their improved moods with the environment of the greenhouse and its contrast to winter weather. Here are just a couple responses:

“It’s all about the fresh air and light and heat. You can’t get that anywhere else in the winter. That’s what keeps me coming back here. It just makes me feel so relaxed no matter how much coursework I have to do.” Danny Reitsch, senior class president

“The light is just unlike anything. The controls are so good and the humidity is fabulous, even in our dry winters. Being able to connect with plants and nature is really, really calming and healing. It’s a great stress reliever to be up here, and I always feel happier when I step into this place.” –Teresa Berry, a greenhouse assistant

As do many members of the Dartmouth community, Danny and Teresa mention the four environmental factors discussed previously  light, heat, air, and decoration  to describe why being in the greenhouse improves their sense of wellbeing during the winter season.


What Can We Conclude?

The logic behind the Gruen transfer, the impacts of light therapy, the psychology study on weather and mood, and opinions from the college’s community all point to the same conclusion: the greenhouse at Dartmouth seems capable of shifting the mindset of visitors using nothing more than how its environment differs from winter weather.


Coming Back to Escapist Architecture:

Using the Greenhouse as a Platform for a Greater Idea

In suggesting that a room can cause a person who does not live in a certain environment to still feel its emotional effects, these findings help uncover the true meaning of escapist architecture. Teresa Berry, a greenhouse assistant, phrases the essence of the concept perfectly:

“You get up here and you’re in a different world. Considering the climate we’re in this winter, this is the one tropical getaway you’re going to find without getting on a plane.”

What makes the greenhouse so impactful is not necessarily its environment, but how this environment contradicts its surroundings; this space would have far less an effect on visitors if it were located in warm, sunny Florida as opposed to cold, dreary New Hampshire.

Ultimately, escapist architecture provides a luxury of contrast. It provides an escape from reality, a quick rescue from whatever environment prevails in a person’s day-to-day life.

Ultimately, escapist architecture provides a luxury of contrast. It provides an escape from reality, a quick rescue from whatever environment prevails in a person’s day-to-day life.

This idea extends much further beyond the ideas of the Gruen transfer or light therapy. Although both emphasize contrast to outdoor environment, light therapy pertains just to light and temperature in regards to mood, while the Gruen transfer pertains just to ambience and temperature in regards to consumerism. Escapist architecture combines and adds to all of these ideas, taking into account everything about a space and how these factors impact mentality as a contrast to real-world conditions.

An aerial view of the greenhouse at Dartmouth College. (Photo: jgslimited.com)

An aerial view of the greenhouse at Dartmouth College. (Photo: jgslimited.com)


Moving Forward:

How to Apply Escapist Architecture to Everyday Life 

Rather than a phenomenon that can occur only in greenhouses, this concept offers many practical applications. Architects who design in winter environments might model their buildings to mimic summer environments in order to improve users’ states of mind. Administrators of high-stress venues such as hospitals, prisons, and schools might consider adding a space that simulates summer to mitigate poor emotional conditions. Artists who hope to evoke certain moods in viewers can design their exhibits to mentally transport people to places that generally induce these target feelings. In all these ways and more, escapist architecture offers an unparalleled opportunity in design, one particularly unmistakeable at the greenhouse of Dartmouth College.