Art at the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital


This mammoth new hospital described as the flagship of the NHS was formally launched by Her Majesty the Queen. At a slither over £300,000 per bed unit, this palatial 665 bed hospital towers over its elegantly scaled neighbourhood where domestic beds average at about £70,000 each. The architects, Sheppard Robson are responsible for delivering the formidable building in half the time it would normally take to plan and build a typical modern hospital. The flaunting of such extravagance for an impoverished NHS is surprising even by the standards of conspicuous consumption native to Chelsea. With its intimidating size will the new Chelsea and Westminster Hospital blemish our beloved fur Fulham Road?

The core of the design is a hospital mall. This concept was developed in Canada and the Netherlands where the external walls have been continued in an interior space to create a real sense of public domain. Here, in this showy part of town, things are not quite as they seem. The apparently generous, traditionally grided, fenestration of the undistinguished façade is largely false. Once inside, one finds oneself, in total contrast, no longer on the ground floor but on a bridge in a vast hall with breathtaking views of white cavernous cliff-face cladded decks. From the street, a plain factory, inside a white chamber its architecture reveals itself immediately and is overwhelming. Despite this and the much publicised over-spend on the construction, hospital designers have much to learn from this type of atrium design with its covered courtyards, vertiginous walkways and generous allocation of bed space.

An impressive mass, the hospital must be among the largest public buildings in this part of London since the South Kensington Museums. Like say, the Science Museum which is also dominated by vast halls, the new hospital faces the problem of how to present artefacts on a more human scale within a monumentally large volume. In museums, exhibition display has become a very sophisticated business, often with the construction of elaborate intermediary exhibition architecture. To provide a successful interface with the artworks in a monumental void requires considerable exhibition and curatorial skills. The artworks need to be gathered together in order to animate a smaller scaled stage setting of their own. Unfortunately in this respect the arrangement of the art at the Chelsea and Wesminster has missed the boat and many of the works have drowned in the sea of white walls.

The provision of art work played no part in the original design of the building. Hasty planning, productivity-driven designing, fast track construction and late liability clauses create conditions which almost guarantee that the art dimension will be side-lined and incorporated if at all, as a last minute gesture. With a hectic rear-guard action, art applied as window dressing may make the building more photogenic and a useful tool in the culture of corporate imagery but it is unfair to the art and to the artist.

The large hall of the Science Museum provides a noble resting place for a clutch of reciprocating steam engines, monuments to the heavy engineering of the Industrial Revolution. Similarly, one of the six court- yards of the Chelsea hospital mall is dominated by a boldly coloured engineering wonder. This gigantic finely balanced structure is the show-piece of the hospital collection the flagship's 16" gun. 'The "Acrobat" by Allen Jones is a colossal piece of curved profiled steel, an ambitious and forceful exhibition of design and fabrication. Its context is no circus and the viewer is deprived of all peripheral and distant viewpoints. The giant acrobat has been co-ordinated with the proportions of the building, it is about largeness, not scale and it belittles the onlooker. It is very muscular for the space.

When the viewer has a restricted view of an object, then as with the reciprocating engines, motion can add a dimension of time to sculpture. In another identical courtyard of the mall, is a busy crescendo of colour in the form of a mobile. Based on motifs taken from Matisse cut-outs, these Falling Leaves by Sian Tucker dazzle in the deep space like an opulent necklace. A pastiche display of hanging plants and birds, it provides a spectacular array of colour, but, as with the Acrobat it is devalued by a mannered treatment of line and scale. Unlike the Allen Jones which has the potential to be enjoyed in three dimensions, the mobile provides no spatial reward for the viewer from its motion. The leaves make a lavish visual statement but lack variety and economy of means.

In the main atrium, the emphasis is on movement, with few niches to sit and relax and contemplate the art collection. The artworks are over exposed, there are no surprises, there is nowhere for them to hide. At the far end, on each floor of the gorge, it is refreshing to discover Melvyn Chantry's series of waterfall paintings. Except for the genuine Paolo Veronese in the chapel, these are the main paintings in the hospital's initial collection. Each canvas with its different lighting creates the mood of a ravine and makes a useful landmark for the rear lift landings. Unfortunately, these well articulated and crafted panels painted in a naturalistic and picturesque style are too large for the walkways and wrongly proportioned. They lack the monumentality to evoke and capture the effect of water cascading from floor to floor.

The art gives the impression that it has been chosen without due deliberation: the selection process seems quite arbitrary. Was it on truly objective criteria that Arts for Health, which is based at Manchester Metropolitan University, selected so many artists with connections with the former Poly or was it for their own convenience? Chelsea is not exactly without local talent, it probably has more accomplished and well known artists per linear inch of bar counter than anywhere else in the country and it has been ignored.

For the atrium where people go to see and be seen, a theme, Theatre for Health has been adopted by the agency responsible. A marketing ploy adopting a single theme is too general an approach to such a complex task and it is an unconvincing overall concept with which to brief an artist. The resulting artwork appears as little autonomous islands of melodrama, ego-displays without the very necessary humility and sensitivity that such a place and its multifarious functions demand. Some of the works, like exotic parrots without a proper perch, hover and screech to seek attention. A visit to a hospital is, for most people, a serious matter and any over emphasis by the decorator on joviality will be read as patronising. Pursuing an irrelevant theme gives a false sense of accomplishment, a superficial layer produced at the expense of solutions sympathetic to the environment. The theme is likely to be totally out of step with the mood of the patient or their visitor and any self respecting artist would want to explore beyond such limitations. Here, rather than theatre, we are in danger of producing pantomime. Hopefully, a silk hanging soon to be commissioned from Patrick Heron will improve the situation.

Little is known about the healing status of art and architecture, about what constitutes an appropriate hospital environment and what forms of art are appropriate. Matisse, whose work has been very influential at Chelsea, spoke after major surgery about the healing power of art and the beneficial radiation he believed that he received from his brilliantly hued cut-outs. Producing art however, in the manner of the old French master, provides only a limited sort of art; lyrical virtuosity wasted on emulation. We do not produce art simply to pacify or entertain, art is also by its nature, radical and provocative and is not necessarily good for you.

Meanwhile behind the public persona of the hospital and once out of the grand civic assembly, one is confronted with the same old clinical domain. The architects have adopted the orthodox approach to hospital design, squeezing the departmental accommodation into uniform templates.They have unfortunately failed to achieve only the same old dark entrances to the wards and abysmally confined OPD and X-ray waiting areas. All the creative energy and budgets have been absorbed up front with little attention to the needs of the patient, the staff and service requirements. Containing the main circulation routes under a single roof is spatially efficient but the corresponding deep volumes leave many internal staff rooms without natural daylight. It is disorientating to enter the building from the street to suddenly find yourself on a second floor bridge. The visitor can only stare at the grand gesture of the atrium, it is only accessible to the sight while the other equally important senses are denied. As most sensual experiences require firm contact with a datum point such as the floor, so the subconscious, orientation and way-finding skills need to explore the ground plan more thoroughly. Yet the sunken courtyards in which the sculptures could be more fully explored remain zoo-like in their isolation. You can look but you'd better not touch.

The great hall with its cathedral naïve is stunning and the etherial walkways no place for the faint-hearted. The simple canvas canopies over the restaurant and parts of the floor detailing such as the main escalator carpet show potential. This high-profile hospital will of course attract critical comment and the well meaning Arts for Health entourage must be mindful of gaining a reputation for inoffensive recipes and repetition. The Chelsea and Westminster hospital is no white elephant, it is a benchmark solution to the problem of handling common activity spaces within a restricted site. Like a flagship, it exudes authoritarian power but the real challenge of improving the quality of a hospital's services will not be won until designers adopt the more humble posture of identifying the needs of patients and resolving the specific requirements of individual departments. At Chelsea the problem starts with the entrance hall; the place where ambulant patients should he welcomed and made to feel comfortable, instead provides an environment which is intense and stressful. Nevertheless for sheer ambition and determination the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital will provide the visitor with an un-forgetful and thought provoking experience.

Art & Architecture Journal No36 Summer 1993


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