A cancer battle helped to inspire the design of a hospital, with the hope of bringing an aesthetic salve to suffering.
CAN a hospital be uplifting?
Three years ago architect Rob McBride lay in a hospital bed being treated for cancer and loathing the soulless architecture with its endless corridors.
“You can’t help being an architect, even when you’re sick,” he says. “So you’re still looking around saying, ‘That’s a bit ugly’.”
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While he went into remission, cancer didn’t change his life profoundly. “It made me value what I already value a lot more — my family and my work — but it’s not like I wanted to change anything,” he says.
The stressful all-nighters that architects regularly pull is just part of the job he loves; one that he shares with his wife, interior designer Debbie Ryan. Indeed she was all too familiar with cancer and depressing clinics. It had claimed her father several years before.
Whether cancer is a matter of stress, bad luck, destiny or biological predisposition, as fate would have it last year they were invited to be part of a bid to design the Victorian Comprehensive Cancer Centre.
For a firm that established its reputation on experimenting with intricately sculpted residential projects and making a virtue of relatively unglamorous projects, such as the star-spangled Yardmasters building at Southern Cross Station, this would be the biggest job of their 24-year career. The largest clinical and research cancer centre in Australia. The budget: $1 billion. The location: the landmark site at the roundabout of Flemington Road and Elizabeth Street and the symbolic gateway to the city’s medical precinct.
McBride may not have wanted to change the way he worked, but they both agreed that their work could change the way a hospital was designed. Function would not be the sole determinate over the form.
“We tried as best we could to steer away from the sort of things you commonly accept in a hospital,” he says. “Slightly holy places are the type we returned to — galleries, mosques and churches. Architecture that tries to make people believe in something. That was our hope for the cancer centre. That it would give you that sense of belief that you would get cured or that eventually cancer will be licked.”
So how did such a relatively small practice get to take part in the bid for such a major public project? As life-changing moments go, perhaps winning the 2009 World Architecture Festival’s best residential category for the Klein Bottle House at Rye qualifies. It certainly brought plenty of international media hype. MCR were the creators of the “best house in the world”. But MCR’s stunning buildings have been steadily accumulating Australian architecture’s highest accolades for more than a decade.
The inspiration behind that Klein Bottle House was an obscure, seemingly impossible, mathematical model, which has no distinguishing inside or outside. MCR’s many other awarded projects have equally captivating sources. Hogwarts, a Chinese dragon, a cloud, and a school library at the centre of an infinity symbol are the consistently atypical inspiration for MCR buildings. “These are buildings that are about trying to capture your imagination,” says Ryan.
“When we started out it was harder to convince people to go with our vision,” she says in a new documentary on their work, Life Architectur-ally. “These days people come to us because they expect us to give them something unexpected.”
The tantalising question of will they or won’t they win the bid forms the dramatic structure for the documentary, which resembles an episode of the popular Grand Designs.
It’s tempting to view the cancer centre’s exterior as arteries flowing across the surface of the building, and the interior with its bridges and voids as ventricles. McBride isn’t so keen on the analogy. “It didn’t escape us that people could read biological metaphors, but it was really about trying to embody the centre,” he says. “The spiral became for us what we thought would be a symbol of hope or progress, because that was what the building was all about. The spiral starts on the axis and winds up the building.
“The internal spaces are quite grand and ambitious. But also something that is easy to get around.
For people that are quite traumatised by the whole experience, they don’t spend half their day walking down 100-metre corridors trying to get from one department to the rest. And they always relate back to the central space which, with all its light and air, hopefully is inspiring and gives people some sense of hope.”
Meanwhile, the exterior is meant to resemble trees. “It reflects the coming together of different types of research and institutions — a whole lot of strands of thoughts, endeavours — in this one facility,” says McBride. “Trying to be a symbol of a centre of the whole medical precinct. It’s about sending a signal: to the staff that their work is important and to patients that a sense of care pervades the whole environment. I don’t know whether it was because I’m an architect, but if I’m going to go through that sort of thing, I’d rather go through it somewhere quite beautiful.”