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Good design can heal

A difficult trip abroad reminded me that architecture can heal, says Christine Murray

I spent most of last week in an Italian hospice, at the bedside of a dear friend and cousin who is terminally ill and will die sometime in the next few weeks.

Life becomes simple in the face of death, boiled down to the immediate things that really matter. My cousin’s existence is now a routine of meals he no longer enjoys, pain medication, visitors and naps, waiting for the inevitable.

In that room, even with a 24-hour news channel playing softly in the background, it was difficult to concentrate on the budget, planning changes or any other issues of the day. It is amazing how the so-called ‘big issues’ fade away when time is finite.

Impossible to ignore in that compact room, however, was the architecture. Fortuitously in this case, as the quality of the room gave the proceedings a sense of decency and dignity. Unlike some UK hospitals, which pay lip service to domesticity, the hospice room was literally domestic, both in scale and aesthetic. It had large, openable timber windows, a balcony and an unusually large en-suite bathroom with a shower – more generous than many a volume-built micro-flat.

Not a single fitting felt institutional, from the coat hooks behind the door to the comfy chair by the window. How grateful I was for the hand of the architect that designed that room. I felt, as former nurse Laura Lee has said of the Maggie’s Centres she commissions, that these design decisions were making us, patient included, feel better. Maggie’s Centres aren’t hospices, but at their heart is a kitchen with a well-used kettle and a bathroom that offers privacy for crying – it’s this home-like atmosphere that makes the centres feel humane.

Back in the office, part of me was still in that room as I read the transcript of the AJ’s conversation with communities and local government minister Greg Clark. This is the first time in recent weeks that we’ve heard a Conservative say something good about architects. Clark, who is responsible for the Localism Bill, makes some grand assertions in the interview, saying architects are crucial to realising the ‘fundamental aspirations of our country’.

Sadly, Clark also defends education secretary Michael Gove and his comments on BSF, claiming the schools were ‘humongously expensive’ and did not always represent value for money. But he also names architects as ‘crucial’ to the success of the Localism policy’s implementation, and architecture as one of Britain’s most respected export industries.

These positive statements are welcome for certain, although I can’t help but feel they lack a certain specificity – I did not get the impression, for example, that Clark understands what architecture can do at a basic level – the value for money that I found so clearly and simply expressed in that hospice room. As a family, we felt cared for by the architecture, and it allowed us to think that if you had to go, it wasn’t such a bad place to be. When the time comes, we should all be so lucky.

Readers' comments (4)

  • I wish I had the opportunity to read your leader prior to meeting you at the awards judging today. I completely agree that architecture can aid the healing process by sensitively designing for the physical and emotional needs of patients and families. My work with the teenage cancer trust and the feedback received has convinced me that the profession can make a difference. It is frustrating that the NHS do not fully embrace the benefits that great patient spaces can make; it would save money in the long term!

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  • Christine Murray

    Thank you, John. There has been a revolution over the past decade in the design of birth centres and cancer care facilities. I can only hope that 'rooms for dying in' will be next, and that architects will be recognised as instrumental in making decent hospice care happen.

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  • Christine Murray

    I will touch on this issue in my next Leader too.

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  • Perhaps on a slightly different level - but you should also look at what the Design Council is trying to do in relation to hospitals:

    http://www.designcouncil.org.uk/our-work/challenges/health/ae/

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