Fluid design for new children's hospital creates playful effect, as befits clientele

Wed, Oct 13, 2010, 01:00

Children had a key input into plans revealed yesterday for the new hospital to be built on the Mater site

DUBLIN HAS never seen anything like the national children’s hospital planned for the Mater site. Not only would it be taller than Liberty Hall, but the crowning eight-storey element would also be twice as long horizontally as Siptu’s headquarters is high.

The 16-storey hospital, designed by Dublin-based architects O’Connell Mahon in collaboration with global architects NBBJ, with earlier input from architects Murray O’Laoire, would rise to an overall height of nearly 68m (223ft), starting with a four-storey frontage on Eccles Street, with a wide entrance topped by a glazed canopy.

Behind this relatively modest stone-clad block, which is intended to repair the long gash in the streetscape caused by the demolition nearly 30 years ago of Scoil Caitríona and the Dominican College, a much larger eight-storey block would extend across the six-acre site.

The architects stack the children’s wards, with outdoor spaces for recreation, in a curvilinear form that would be visible all over the city. Its shape is unusual and highly distinctive – think the insole of a shoe, except more symmetrical – and clad in glass with profiled metal “fins”.

With a helicopter pad on the roof and the top floor given over to education, lead architect Seán Mahon says the wards “will be almost a piece of magic sitting on top” of the new hospital. The design, he says, is emblematic of “the whole idea of making special places for children”.

The architects thought long and hard about what form the wards should take and “gradually moved to a more fluid building rather than something static” and rectilinear. Indeed, what they have produced is almost playful, as befits its primary purpose and youthful clientele.

The scale is massive by Dublin standards, with the curving ward block extending to 120m long and up to 40m deep

Within it, the form allows for wards to be arranged in a saw-toothed layout, each with 24 individual bedrooms in clusters of eight around the nurses’ stations.

It would also be “inhabited”, as Mr Mahon says, by children’s play areas, family spaces and school areas, cantilevered out over a narrower “neck” separating the wards from the clinical floors below, with “playful or green elements and transient spaces to give it sense of life”.

Project architect Clare White, who worked on the project with Murray O’Laoire before the firm went into liquidation last March, says there was extensive engagement with a youth advisory panel, made up of children and teenagers aged from eight to 18, in designing the hospital.

Aided by facilitators, the children – all of whom had experience of being in hospital – wanted “everything to be soft, with colour everywhere”, she says. “They came up with a lot of practical issues, such as having a place downstairs where mums could get their hair done.”

Teenagers wanted full-length mirrors and the ability to “personalise their spaces”, as well as doors with different shapes to avoid monotony, while children wanted “slides instead of stairs, somewhere for pets, a cinema in the basement and football pitch on the roof”.

They didn’t get everything. Nevertheless, the input they had fed into the layout of rooms and their need for greenery and social spaces to meet other patients – especially important to teenagers – was taken on board.

All rooms have “pull-down beds” so that a parent could sleep comfortably there.

“We saw landscaping and gardens as really important in helping patient outcomes, and the image we developed at start was of overlapping roof spaces”, Seán Mahon says. “Hospitals also need good circulation and ‘way-finding’ systems, as they can be very tortuous.”

Most of the circulation in the national children’s hospital would be vertical (via lifts) rather than horizontal (long corridors). This is due to the restricted nature of the Eccles Street site, part of which would be for a maternity hospital, but it’s also best practice internationally.

All of the operating theatres and other clinical facilities would be at the lower levels, with the accident and emergency unit on the ground floor. Car parking would occupy four storeys underground, with 1,000 spaces – two-thirds for the public and the rest for medical staff.

One of the other key considerations was to remake Eccles Street, repairing the gash of nearly 100m between the Mater Private Hospital and a protected terrace next to the original hospital. The new hospital would extend much further, with an overall length of 200m.

However, 40m of the new street frontage would be taken up by the dramatic entrance under a broad canopy at parapet level. “We felt that its identification as a public building would be lost if it was too narrow, and a balance was needed to make this new public space, ” says Séan Mahon.

Underneath the canopy, a painted steel sculpture is proposed, as well as a freestanding cafe building in a form Finnish architect Alvaar Alto would have recognised; its blobby triangle is similar in shape to a famous glass vase he designed. Here again, fluidity was intended.

The height of the overall building and its impact on Dublin’s skyline is bound to be controversial. And while the architects insist that they haven’t “shoehorned” it into an inherently unsuitable site, had it been a tower block – rather than a slab – it would have risen to 21 storeys.