A Sight for Sore Eyes
Elena Kornbluth -- Interior Design, 8/1/2005 12:00:00 AM
In 1736, William Hogarth completed his first major public commission, The Pool of Bethesda, and transported it across London to St. Bartholomew's Hospital, where he installed his massive canvas above the grand staircase in a wing recently built by James Gibbs. The painting's subject was biblical, the story of Christ healing a crippled man, but Hogarth populated his scene with characters from the 18th century's lowest street life. An old man clutching his swollen belly personifies cancer; another man supports a gouty arm; female figures display the pallor of tuberculosis or the inflammation of gonorrhea. Hardly a tableau to reassure an anxious patient—in any century.
When the U.K.'s National Health Service hired Greenhill Jenner Architects to transform an adjacent Gibbs wing into a screening and diagnostic center for breast cancer, director Nigel Greenhill lobbied hard to set aside 3 percent of his budget, the equivalent of $470,000, for contemporary art that would comfort and uplift. Greenhill also encouraged Theresa Bergne of Field Art Projects to apply for the job of curating the building-wide series of interrelated commissions. Because she joined the project in the planning stages, art and architecture were able to develop in parallel paths, ones that address the needs of Barts patients as they move through their course of treatment.
Gibbs's 1753 architecture exhibited typical neoclassical symmetry, with a central stair flanked by two pairs of open wards on each of three main levels. (An attic, inserted beneath the mansard roof capping the Italianate facade, possibly held staff quarters.) "It was noble and robust but fairly utilitarian, handsome but not fancy," Greenhill says.
Despite a Grade I listing, GJA proved that the wing's 34,000-square-foot interior, most of which had fallen into ruin, was nothing more than a patchwork of later modifications. "After we'd diagnosed the patient," Greenhill explains, "we said to English Heritage and the City of London planning department, 'Let's preserve the character, the volumes. Then let's make anything new the finest of our time.'"
An architectural transition from historical to contemporary operates vertically, with the ground level's public spaces retaining the greatest number of original details and references. Once patients proceed to the second floor for a consultation with a doctor, they begin to encounter explicit GJA interventions. These become increasingly clinical-looking on the third floor, where diagnostic tests take place. Meanwhile the artwork—commissioned on the theme Anywhere But Here—follows the opposite path, from large, abstract installations below to intimate representational paintings above. "With a range of approaches," Bergne explains, "a patient could say, 'I don't like this, but that's fantastic.'"
Patients first encounter an art-architecture composition built around a re-creation of Gibbs's central staircase. GJA had found it barely lashed together, with an elevator shaft running through the middle, and eventually remade 70 percent of the risers, treads, and balusters in stained European oak. When Bergne saw the stairwell, she immediately pictured one of artist David Batchelor's light-box towers. Batchelor, however, came back with a more sensitively integrated proposal to install a spectrum of neon frames in the stairwell's eight window reveals. In daylight, the frames glow with a pastel delicacy, balancing the staircase's vigorous form.
Next in sequence, the main waiting room occupies precisely the same huge volume as a Gibbs ward, while the Portland stone mantel resembles one that would have surrounded the ward's enormous fireplace. Flanking it are expanses of paneling—but hardly a type common in the 18th century. DJ Simpson, who uses a hand router to "draw" on high-pressure plastic laminate, scored these white laminate panels with a hypnotic constellation of circles and ovals.
Artwork in the upstairs sub-waits attracts the most commentary. In the second-floor sub-wait, GJA reinforced the ceiling to support Cornelia Parker's silver candelabras, sauce boats, and teapots, all suspended from hundreds of anodized-steel wires. On the third floor, the tropical colors of a landscape-fantasia mural by James Aldridge inspired the tangerine and raspberry upholstery of the mid-century seating.
On both sides of the sub-waits, spaces originally occupied by back-to-back wards now read as single rectangular volumes containing a central enclosure—like a separate piece of furniture. And it's here that much of the facility's medical work occurs. The second-floor enclosures, which hold consultation rooms, are oak-veneered not to look "too clinical," Greenhill says. On level three, pale gray plastic laminate lends a more recognizably medical air to the diagnostic enclosures, filled with digital mammography, ultrasound, and biopsy equipment.
Outside the enclosures, along the perimeter circulation routes, window reveals harbor small prints and paintings: Shahzia Sikander's stylized landscapes, based on Persian and Indian miniatures, and George Shaw's domestic scenes, drawn from his West Midlands childhood. It's sitting in these corridors, awaiting a round of tests, that patients may be wishing most anxiously to be Anywhere But Here. The good news, Greenhill points out, is that nine out of 10 women soon will be.