Humans first: Exploring healing architecture in hospitals

Ingy Deif, Thursday 28 Dec 2023

Exploring environmental healing, an exhibition titled "Build to Heal" at Munich's Pinakothek Museum delves into the health impact of architectural design in hospitals.

Streams and bricks heal in Bangladesh.


What makes us heal? Is it doctors and medicine only or do surroundings and environment contribute to our wellbeing?

The question was at the core of the exhibition which commenced in mid-July and is running until January 2024.

Recently visited by Ahram online, the place was swarming with visitors eager to understand how hospitals can be transformed to promote healing.

At the entrance of the place, a huge billboard explained the backdrop of the exhibition

“Historically, hospital architecture has prioritized efficiency, economy, flexibility, and rationalization, often neglecting the needs and well-being of patients and caregivers,” the board read.

“Hospitals are generally not very popular, and hardly any of us have good memories of a stay there,” it added.

“This has a lot to do with their architecture, which holds little regard for the basic needs of patients and employees. It wasn't always this way – and doesn't have to remain so,” it continued.

The exhibition presented thirteen international projects that embraced the concept of "healing architecture," emphasizing elements such as orientation, sensory environment, privacy, and human scale,” the board read.


Designing for individual needs

One of the displays showed pictures of REHAB Basel, standing out as an exceptional design that caters to the specific requirements of paraplegic and brain-damaged individuals.

The integration of pathways and courtyards fosters intuitive movement, accommodating limited mobility.

The place looks like it is part of the forest, with a design made of wood and horizontal buildings and courtyards creating a warm and inviting atmosphere.

Spherical skylights were inserted in the ceiling of rooms occupied by patients who have fallen into a vegetative state, to provide them with a connection to the outside world, a link with the view of the sky.


Maggie: A testament to empathy

Visitors were attracted to the story of Maggie's Cancer Centers, renowned for their exceptional architecture and design.

 These centers originated from the vision of founder Maggie, who personally experienced the impact of environment and design while dealing with her own cancer diagnosis.

Inspired by her journey, Maggie and her husband Charles Jencks collaborated with architects to create centers that merge the design of buildings with the surrounding nature and environment.

The focus of the exhibition was on the Maggie's Cancer Center in Manchester, a single-story structure with a natural timber frame.

The central spine of the building allows natural light to flood the interior, creating a serene and uplifting ambiance.

 The lightweight beams and timber lattice not only support the roof but also define distinct spaces within the center. This architectural marvel, primarily constructed with wood and surrounded by greenery, garnered sixteen prestigious awards within two years of its completion.

A Bangladeshi wonder

A beauty to the eye – that was the display of Friendship Hospital in Bangladesh.

The extremely simple – yet genius – design showcased how a tight budget can be overcome to create a project that makes use of environmental constraints rather than be hindered by them. 

Located in a region heavily influenced by water and dependent on the fishing industry, this hospital was established by the local non-governmental organization Friendship.

The use of traditional brick masonry instills a sense of reliability and identification for the local population because it is the kind of building materials they are accustomed to.

Channels of water stream through the place, making use of amounts collected due to continuous heavy rain. Water is purified and dutifully used again.

The structure effectively channels the cooling southwest wind, while the presence of a water canal provides orientation and separates different sections of the clinic.

The courtyard, adorned with shady trees and pergolas, resembles structures found in local villages. The same sense of belonging also stems from the concept of locating the hospital beside the fishing areas, which is the main economic activity of the people there.

This simple yet thoughtful design won the prestigious RIBA International Prize in 2021.

Green hues for health

Green was a predominant color all over the exhibition, showing how architects chose to embed it as a form of nature-healing architecture.

Accordingly, the exhibition begins by featuring a strikingly large number of trees, bushes, flowers, water, and wood in the illustrations.

For example, the display of the Willem Arntsz House in Utrecht emphasized that the designers placed so much trust in the calming effect of green floors that the managers of what were previously closed psychiatric wards felt confident enough to open them.

 On the lower floors, therapy spaces are located, fostering integration with the surrounding neighborhood. The upper floors accommodate patients' rooms, each with access to a private roof terrace offering panoramic views of the city.

The second-floor rooms extend into a roof garden, promoting privacy and a healing-supporting retreat.



A holistic approach to child oncology

The Princess Maxima Centre, the largest child oncology centre in Europe, exemplifies a holistic approach to healing.

The centre's architecture integrates indoor and outdoor spaces, creating a natural flow and fostering interactions between children, parents, doctors, nurses, and researchers.

The layout prioritizes child development, with attention given to the child and family needs.

The parent-child rooms, designed to resemble a domestic setting, allow family members to stay close to their children. The design emphasizes factors such as daylight, air quality, views, and a calming environment, contributing to the recovery and well-being of young patients.

In Denmark, the NYT Hospital is designed as a large ring-shaped building with extensive use of wood and glass, permitting light as much as possible.

Moreover, the exhibition highlighted in every display the positive effect that the built environment can have on a patient’s well-being, pain levels, and quality of sleep.

An era, when hospitals and clinics were associated with the view of corridors without windows, a lack of orientation, rooms with glaring neon lights, medical equipment, and the mingling odors of disinfectant and hospital food combined that made patients, family members, and staff feel negative and stressed, is soon to be a bygone era, the exhibition concluded. 

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