MaximusMay 20, 2008
Wellington Hospital – the 800lb gorilla sitting in the corner that no one admits is there
For the last two years since the demolition of the antiquated Wellington hospital, a massive construction has been taking place in Newtown, balanced on its giant rubber base-isolated foundations. Yes it’s too late to ignore it anymore – the hospital has reached a state of completion that, while still some way to go, affords us a chance to review the progress so far.
After a number of years of fighting whether it would be situated in Kenepuru, miles from its constituents in Wellington, it was agreed that a new hospital should rise in the east like a biblical star. Sadly it’s yet to fulfil the promises of its birth (and in fact I haven’t heard a nice word said about it yet), but let’s take this step by step. Is a hospital just a machine for being sick in? or does it have some greater obligation to the huddled and downtrodden masses of Newtown and Government House? or even to architecture? While it can’t be an easy job designing a massive structure in an area of quaint two storey Victoriana, the architects have unsuccessfully endeavoured to hide the massive part of the hospital back from the street in a bland white corporate box that speaks more to the needs of office stationery and regular injections of hygiene than it does to the gentler taste of culture and the public at large. Should the public obligations of a hospital be confined to the most narrow sense of the pragmatic? or was this yet another opportunity for architecture which has grandly missed its mark?
Truely the building treading on the street-front is banal. Its first confusion is the attempt for symmetry clashing with the “random” pattern of the windows, clad in beautiful terracotta tiles, sadly somewhat crudely detailed here. Bizarrely the windows are not all they pretend to be – most appear to be filled with solid metal panels rather than glass, probably because they are situated at ankle level. If the building were being honest, it would just have a continuous terracotta wall, which would surely be more aesthetically pleasing than the nonsense of non-visible windows. Perhaps they were installed as a sop to the local population, trying desparately to tie in with the old buildings nearby. Or perhaps instead they are low level louvres, ready to open and admit fresh air, although this would be an unusual step in an otherwise sealed facade.
Let’s not be stingey – the hospital is a hugely needed and none-too-soon addition to Wellington’s admittedly minscule chances of surviving an earthquake unscathed, and we should be very grateful that it was built here and not in Porirua. The difficult question must have been what idiom to respond to the nearby brick and timber twee-ness of buildings such as the Victorian Ballroom – while simultaneously attempting to innoculate the population against rubella, TB, and whooping cough, and seemingly immunising those on site to good architecture.
The true crime however of this building is that, while providing better quality rooms than before, it allegedly provides very few more beds, and the envitable waiting list will be only a little smaller than before. The Florence Nightingale rationale of sunshine, fresh air and plenty of it, has been surplanted by the service engineers’ insistence on a sealed box, which may serve to keep the gems safe inside and protect the surrounding populace – but really – is that healthy for the poor sods within? Give me sunshine!
Aalto’s Paimio Sanitorium in Finland no doubt had the same irritation of service engineers and hospital adminstrators but seems to have engaged with an architecture of well-being traced from a very different lineage than that selected for Wellington’s new hospital. Here, instead of being graced with slim balconies and keen proportions, the worst architectural frugalities of post-post-modernism, multiplexes and the big box retailing of Queensgate lend their banal detritus of Americana. Corporate bottom lines rather than Victoriana or modernity lives here.
Let’s hope that the inside is better.