Life And Afterlife
Jen Renzi -- Interior Design, 2/1/2008 12:00:00 AM
When Jörg Aldinger entered a competition to design a hospice for the Katholische Gesamtkirchengemeinde, the Catholic church of Stuttgart, Germany, he searched in vain for existing models. "We discovered there were no new-build hospices anywhere in Europe," he says. "There was no archetype to guide us."
So he and his team at Aldinger & Aldinger Partnerschaft Freie Architekten chose empathy over research and put themselves in the shoes of those who would use the facility: a fragile populace of patients and their loved ones, all coming to terms with impending loss. "We approached our proposal from a very personal, emotional place, addressing physical, psychological, and spiritual comfort," he explains.
After winning the competition, Aldinger completed the 21,500-square-foot project in 18 months. His airy, uplifting scheme breathes new life into the genre. From the outside in, the building reads less hospital than hospitality. "Visitors shouldn't feel they're in a medical environment," he says. Even the patients, who stay an average of three weeks, are called "guests."
The building's C-shape plan surrounds a piazza that encourages through traffic in warm weather. "Courtyard walls are flowing and dynamic to pull people in, while the street facades are more strongly rectilinear," Aldinger says. Clad in white and red stucco, the clean volumes recall the Scandinavian spareness of Alvar Aalto. "Once you see Aalto's work in person, you can never quite get him out of your mind," notes the architect, who traveled to Finland in the 1970's.
The interior is just as poetic. A slate-floored lobby culminates in a striking staircase with slate treads that narrow toward the top—foreshortened perspective that's symbolic, suggesting passage to the afterlife. At the top of the stairs, a corridor bridges patient and nursing wings. One of the windows along this hallway has a slate sill blocky enough to double as an altar, supporting a candle and flowers. "When passersby see the candlelight, it creates a connection to patients inside," Aldinger says.
Happier moments bring patients to the linoleum-floored lounge, where maple armchairs with seats covered in sprightly red or orange stain-resistant wool pull up to a maple dining table. Above it, three pendant fixtures with polycarbonate shades hang in a row from the acoustical ceiling. The tile is animated by a perforated pattern that not only helps with sound but also offers visual interest from a reclined vantage point.
Personalization informed the design of the eight private suites that open off the lounge. Windows are dressed in overlapping cotton sheers in three colors—white, yellow, and orange—so "patients can have their own rainbow," Aldinger says. For their visitors, he provided ample seating. In addition to armchairs like the ones in the lounge, a deep ledge extends the width of each room's picture window. "It's awful to spend 10 minutes just looking for a place to sit," he says. In lieu of institutional overhead fluorescents, he chose incandescent floor and table lamps. Floor-to-ceiling maple shelves store treasured possessions.
The beds, also maple, can be positioned to face either outside or into the public areas for engagement with the hospice community. "Some prefer to be alone. Others want to feel connected to life. We gave them that choice," Aldinger explains. Beds can also be wheeled to the roof garden, which houses a chapel.
While grappling with such delicate matters as life and death, Aldinger says, "We nonetheless had many wonderful, touching talks with the priests about architecture, religion, and eternity. There was even, surprisingly, a lot of laughter." Life-affirming indeed.