Pub: SYDNEY MORNING HERALD
Section: NEWS AND FEATURES
Too much chaos among the cuddles
Sheer size is the major problem in designing a hospital ARCHITECTURE
HOSPITAL design these days is about disguise. More than ever, today’s hospitals are huge, hugely technical beasts, but the last thing they want is to look that way. Recognising at last that hospitality is part of their core business – the word implies as much – and that the grim, efficient look may be less than conducive to healing, today’s hospital wants to look warm, approachable, squashy.
The biggest impediment to this pursuit is not the sterility, the technology, nor even the absolute primacy of function – though these are hard enough to tizzy-up, goodness knows. The hardest thing about hospital design is size. A hospital is just so damn big.
The new Children’s Hospital at Westmead is no exception: as a children’s hospital, it bears a special obligation to offer the halt and the lame and their loved ones a bit of a cuddle. But any building as big as Governor Phillip Tower – rolled out in three layers over 11-and-a bit hectares – is going to have its work cut out seeming friendly.
From the start, both Chris Johnson, then Assistant Government Architect, and Dr John Yu, primary client/patron for the New Children’s Hospital, determined to turn this burden to the project’s advantage. Johnson took the unusual step, often mooted but seldom actually taken, of appointing not one but four different design teams to the project, to counteract the totalitarian feel.
In the divvying up, Lawrence Nield and Partners (LNPA), architects for the Newcastle Public Hospital, inter alia, got the biggest, juiciest bit, including the main entrance, the main internal street or “galleria” and most of the public spaces, as well as the operating theatres and casualty. McConnel Smith and Johnson, headed by Mark Willett, designed the Outpatients Building, as well as the Medical Centre, still under construction. Woods Bagot architects did the Diagnostic Services building – big in itself and by far the hardest to turn into architecture, with no public spaces to speak of. The design of the wards was done in-house by Healthworks, the hospitals arm, so to speak, of the Government Architect.
The idea behind all this laudable pluralism was to reduce the hospital’s apparent size by making it look like several buildings, not one, and to banish the helpless anomie that so vast a building by a single hand is apt to induce, especially in those
already disempowered by sickness.
So does it work, this illusion of empowerment? Can such sheer vastness be counteracted by design? Can a building, designed to appeal to those who are both young, and sick, avoid being patronising?
The answer has to be yes, up to a point; it is possible, it does work. The huge building is undeniably conspicuous in its brick-bungaloid context, but less ruthlessly alien than the standard ’60s version would have been. Or Governor Phillip Tower, for that matter.
And yes, it is friendly, if by friendly you mean frantically vivacious. Inside as well as out, the building is colourful, expressive and irrepressibly tricksy.
The four parts of the building – for it still reads as a building, not several – take different attitudes to most things; colour and material, solid and void, context, idiom and trickiness. There is some attempt to respond to surroundings, both through Mark Willett’s rather dashing use of what the blurb calls “bright Mediterranean” ochres and siennas, and, less sophisticatedly, through Healthworks’ pseudo-naff stripy brickwork.
LNPA’s main building is much more defiant about context, relying exclusively on extras to raise the temperature of its otherwise super-cool etude in white, grey and grey. The extras, in this case, are three discrete wave propositions, each of a different amplitude and frequency; the entrance canopy, the whoops-a-daisy ambulance bay, and the blue-lipped, diamond-quilted number draped like lasagne over what ought to be the spinal “galleria”, but isn’t.
Which brings us to the question of order. A hospital is a supremely ordered operation, militaristic in scale, hierarchy and precision. Architecture, too, is fundamentally about rendering spatial order from chaos. The job of hospital architecture, from Brunelleschi’s beautiful little Florentine thing on, has been to shape, signal, direct and facilitate the complex choreographies within. Certainly the ’60s mega-hospital overdid it, losing all human succulence. But can architecture fairly be expected, as at Westmead, to provide both the fact of order, and the appearance of disorder?
Many kids stay here longterm and management devices do much to foster a sense of belonging; parents are encouraged to stay (so the bed-spaces are bigger, not smaller, than in a regular hospital) and there is a TV station, run and starred-in by the kids, piped to each bed. But to what extent can architecture help a high-powered military operation feel like a holiday camp, sacrificing neither dignity nor efficiency?
One of the essential ordering tasks in any public building of this size concerns intelligibility. This is especially difficult in a hospital where members of the public, often at their least confident, must penetrate the building’s complexities much more deeply than is usual. Arguably, a hospital building which enables an anxious parent to find the X-ray room without increasing fear and confusion offers a warmer welcome, greater empowerment, than colours and artworks and flamboyant gestures can ever do.
Woods Bagot, whose work at Westmead is respectable but undistinguished, has since designed another hospital, admittedly much smaller, in Port Macquarie, where the generative diagram is so clear you can carry it in your head like a map as you go.
Westmead has certainly tried, in this regard, with Emery Vincent’s handsome signage pointing the way around. But signs cannot wholly dispel that “where the hell am I” feeling. The overall unifying spatial diagram – what architects call the “parti” – is conspicuous by its absence.
This traces back to the original decision to split the design work four ways, and the degree of control exercised at that stage. Had the parti, and basic guidelines as to material, colour, and spatial hierarchy, been handed out with the design briefs, this immensely instructive experiment in humanising Gargantua might have been even more successful.
Two illus: Westmead Children’s Hospital and (right) the front entrance canopy…a warm welcome.
Photographs by SAHLAN HAYES