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Architectural therapy

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PUBLIC BUILDING: George Demetri reports on a new children's hospital that brightens up Bristol

If a hospital's environment is as conducive to recuperation as the treatment administered, then patients in the recently completed Bristol Royal Hospital for Children should be well on the way to recovery.

One of the key objectives of the brief was to incorporate art throughout the new £22 million building. Hence, the interior is characterised by a bold use of colour and design which extends to floor finishes, fabrics, doors, crash rails, ceilings, sculpture and painting.

Standing in the main reception, you might think you were in a science museum, thanks to the colourful interactive sculptures, the moving timepieces and the flock of perspex swallows overhead. The result is a noninstitutional, non-threatening atmosphere where colour, art and brightness play a crucial role - a philosophy which extends to the building's exterior.

Urban context

Approaching up the incline of Upper Maudlin Street, one cannot miss the substantial presence of this six-storey, buff coloured building which is reminiscent of a fortified citadel of almost medieval monumentality. Yet this is tempered by the informality of the building's rather attractive massing and the bold use of colour to interact with the large, chaste planes of creamy buff brickwork and the sparkle of the glazing. Although the diverse forms of fenestration are unified by using turquoise powder-coated frames throughout, the sheer variety is still impressive. There are bay windows with dramatic zinc-covered overhangs, jewel-like prismatic windows, and curtain walling which ranges from a vertical slit on the main stair tower to the eye-catching, colour-coded quadrant of the lift lobbies.

At each level of the quadrant, projecting perforated aluminium sunshades on a steel frame express the prevailing colour of each floor and serve not only as an effective decorative form but also to provide support for window cleaning. It all constitutes a vibrant contrast to the sombre brutalism of the adjacent 1960s-built Bristol Royal Infirmary (BRI) building to which the new hospital is linked at each level.

Design approach

The architect wanted a building 'which defied its harsh urban context, had clarity of purpose and expressed its function confidently'. This has been achieved partly by the use of creamy buff brickwork which makes the building jump out of its colourless surroundings, partly by projecting planes of colour, and partly by the bold, craggy street frontage which steps out from the existing BRI frontage.

Keeping the main circulation routes adjacent to the perimeter has achieved a higher degree of transparency than is normally associated with hospitals.

Wards and clinical areas are located on the top floors in order to enjoy views over the city and the surrounding countryside, while operating theatres, radiology, the intensive therapy unit (ITU), outpatients, storage and supplies are cut into the hillside of the steeply sloping site. The ground floor accommodates only the main entrance and parking.

Unsurprisingly, the requirement for play formed an important part of the brief. In addition to play areas in individual wards, a dedicated play department with outside play area has been created on level five towards the rear of the building on what used to be a hidden 'oasis' of green.

A major problem during the design and construction phase was the increase in the size of the ITU, which necessitated a large extension and resulted in the loss of an adjoining beer garden. As the amended plan encroached into a conservation area, the planners insisted on a dark, foreboding stone wall facade for the encroaching part which appropriately echoes the mood of the existing BRI building.


The reinforced concrete frame of the children's hospital is clad in conventional cavity walling comprising a brick external leaf (or stone in some places), a block inner leaf and a 100mm-wide cavity, partially-filled with insulation. The creamy buff brickwork is articulated near the reception area by alternating bands of turquoise-glazed brickwork peppered with a chequerboard of small square windows on a child's scale. These, together with the dramatic tubular steel and glass entrance canopy, serve to emphasise the main entrance. Further along, the entire length of elevation closest to the pavement features a single course of red engineering bricks every sixth course up to first floor level.

Provision for brickwork expansion has resulted in elevations divided neatly into panels by horizontal and vertical movement joints. The potentially unsightly horizontal joints have been cleverly concealed by a buff-coloured aluminium flashing which gives the appearance of a projecting string course when viewed from ground level. As for brick specials, a substantial number were used throughout, including pistol soldier bricks for steel supporting angles over window openings and single cants used as sills to tiny square window openings.

At several points at the higher levels, vertically aligned windows have been 'linked' with panels of stackbonded, turquoise-glazed bricks.

Further down, near pavement level, large bullseye windows are set in square, reconstituted-stone surrounds.

It all adds up to a satisfying composition, using a diverse range of architectural elements in which the colour of the brickwork makes an important contribution. That the result seems to hint at a combination of toytown hospital and fairy tale castle must be seen as a wholly appropriate outcome



Client United Bristol Healthcare Trust Architect and interior designer Whicheloe Macfarlane MDP Structural engineer Arup Contractor John Laing Construction Photography Nigel Spreadbury Andrew Southall

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