Design for good – the future of hospital environments

The Royal London Hospital’s Activity Space and Play Garden has already been widely received as a triumph, and it only opened yesterday.

Stotytelling takes place under the giant chair in the Activity Space
Storytelling takes place under the giant chair in the Royal London Hospital Activity Space

Towering furniture and brightly coloured soft toys have been scaled up to make a Borrowers-perspective living space, where the emphasis is on interactive play and art assisted healing.

It’s happened because charitably funded Vital Arts, an organisation for Barts and The London NHS Trust, has been an enabler for designers Morag Myerscough and Chris O’Shea, and architect Cottrell & Vermeulen to create the space. And because City-based insurers the Newline Group met the cost.

But why is it happening now? Having spoken to those involved, it feels that a combination of technology catching up with ideas and the right frameworks being set up are the answer.

Stotytelling takes place under the giant chair in the Activity Space
Twoo the Owl and Eddie the Tiger feature appear in the room, feature in the interactive and the stories told to children

On an interactive level this kind of design has only become possible relatively recently. Interactives are paramount to the design plan in the Activity Space, including one set inside an oversize television, designed by O’Shea and Nexus Interactive Arts, which encourages children to use gestures to paint, draw, dance and play music.

O’Shea, who has been experimenting with this kind of technology for around eight years, is now able to design solutions for clients by using relatively cheap hardware, including a Microsoft Kinect Camera, (around £130).

He has accessed the Open Kinect project, a community of people who make use of the hardware, and openFrameworks – an open source C++ toolkit.

‘It also works because children are now familiar with seeing themselves on screens – and using those gestures,’ says O’Shea.

Stotytelling takes place under the giant chair in the Activity Space
The Woodland Wiggle interactive designed by Chris O’Shea with Nexus Interactive Arts

The Royal London project comes just two months after Jason Bruges Studio made interventions into the walls of Great Ormond Street Hospital as an interactive ‘distraction artwork.’ 

The Woodland Wiggle interactive designed by Chris O'Shea with Nexus Interactive Arts
Jason Bruges Studio designed a distractive artwork which features in the fabric of the walls at Great Ormond Street

Perhaps other barriers in the past have been cynics – those that need to see the definite measurable benefits of art in and around hospitals, particularly if there’s public money involved.

Organisations like Vital Arts reconcile the complex issue of delivering problem solving art and design to brief, while considering funding and the public perception of this, and the representation of multiple stakeholders’ needs in unique environments. 

Vital Arts director Anne Mullins says, ‘More hospitals are curating public art and design – it used to be done by arts committees, or maybe doctors who were interested in art, which was quite bland and unchallenging.

‘Expertise in arts and health is quite recent, although Great Ormond Street and St Thomas’ also have curators in place.’

Vital Arts has been running since 1996 but Mullins says one of the organisation’s watershed projects was Barts Breast Care Centre, at Barts Hospital, ‘which was pretty much the fist time contemporary artists and architects had been brought together,’ she says.

The project saw site-specific commissions integrated with the architecture to produce spaces of contemplation that positively encourage distraction and discussion.

Richard Cottrell, founding partner of Cottrell & Vermeulen, says that the kind of design we normally see in hospitals is ‘normally in more pragmatic situations’ then at the Royal London Hospital.

Crucially the Activity Space and Play Garden are not clinical spaces, but now maybe even ward environments can be designed as peaceful places that encourage either distraction or engagement.

Stotytelling takes place under the giant chair in the Activity Space
Twoo the Owl and Eddie the Tiger feature appear in the room, feature in the interactive and the stories told to children

Mullins concedes that, ‘with things like hospital procurement and bed-side furniture, the obstacles are things like standard hospital procurement, rigid tender systems, and then risk and insurance.

‘But it’s fun to challenge those dreary spaces and see how far we can push things.’

Cottrell is interested in ‘how all ages might benefit’ and ‘how we might provide different escape spaces for different people.’

He says, ‘A waiting room environment will effect people differently and it would be good to think about spaces for out patients, children, people not feeling well – all briefs need to be encompassed in a creative way and hospitals need to rethink.’

Often the palette of materials used ‘can be quite narrow’ says Cottrell who still thinks there is a significant margin for creative solutions despite stringent and necessary hygiene constraints.

The Activity Space is ‘extraordinary’ in Cottrell’s words – and probably a one off in many respects – but it’s what everyone wants; doctors health professionals, the hospital teacher and of course the child patients were all consulted.

It’s a usable space for all children. In particular O’Shea’s interactive has been designed so that children with full body movement and those who are bed-bound can all benefit.

Hospital teacher Andrew Weilend points to a test period in which a 15-year-old special-needs student with limited movement and a child suffering from sickle cell disease, in mainstream education, were using the device simultaneously for an hour and both appeared to benefit.

• Myerscough to work on wards

Following her work on the play space Morag Myerscough is already working on redesigning the children’s ward at Royal London Hospital with a Bollywood theme.

Morag Myerscough is now redesigning ward spaces in the hospital
Morag Myerscough’s sketch for the ward

Myerscough and Vital Arts director Anne Mullins says that the majority of children they spoke to wanted more colour, particularly children from the local Asian communities.

Myerscough says she was inspired by a trip she made to Delhi a few years ago and says a section will be installed in the next couple of weeks. She has already designed five dining rooms and says, ‘All the patients and parents love colour and want more of it.’

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