The new Royal London Hospital, which opened last year in Whitechapel in east London, is now one of the UK’s largest hospitals for children. Walking around the corridors and shared spaces of this new building, it becomes apparent that it doesn’t feel much like one. It’s still spotless, of course, bright and airy, but what has made a real difference to the environment, is the clever use of art, design and digital installation that aims to make any time spent here a bit more bearable. The group behind this reinvention of the children’s hospital is Vital Arts, the arts organisation for Barts Health NHS Trust. In its first batch of projects for the new children’s spaces at The Royal, Vital Arts has commissioned artists and designers such as Bob and Roberta Smith, Blaise Drummond, Peepshow Collective’s Andrew Rae and Chrissie Macdonald, and most recently, Morag Myerscough, to add colour and warmth to the place.
But making the walls more interesting is just one part of a wider concern that is gaining ground in a few select hospitals. The transformative power of art has been at the heart of Vital Arts’ mission since its founding in 1996, and in that time it has been on a quest to improve the experience within these environments, including championing patients’ access to art once they are being cared for. There are numerous art projects dotted around the main site, from Roger Hiorns’ arresting crystallised clocks salvaged from the hospital’s old building, to Ruth Claxton’s porcelain birds that perch high up on tiny islands along a single corridor. But in the children’s area the focus is more on how pieces can encourage interaction and, understandably, play as a means to aid recovery. It is also, it becomes clear, a way of providing escape – and not just for the young patients, but the families, too.
Writing about the children’s projects in the educational journal Engage last year, Vital Arts’ commissions manager Sarah Carrington said that “An environment with commissioned artworks that bring distraction, wonder and beauty can help young patients and their families cope with difficult circumstances.” Moreover, Vital Arts, she claimed, would divert from perceived notions of what does and does not work in a given space. “In particular we sought to prevent a ‘Disneyfication’ of the environment in which mass-marketed children’s characters adorn hospital walls in an attempt to offer reassurance. Instead this imagery serves to patronise older children and alienate them from the environment further still.”
The centrepiece to the new children’s wing is the Activity Space, designed by architects Cottrell and Vermeulen in collaboration with Myerscough. The million pound venture was funded by donations from various insurers (OdysseyRe, Newline Group, Advent and Riverstone) and facilitated by Barts and The London Charity, which supports innovative projects that are not funded by the NHS directly. The Space is essentially a high-ceilinged ‘living room’ where everything in it – from chair, TV, toy globe, lampshade to cuddly toys – is supersized. There are giant spinning tops and coloured bricks for seats, and even an oversized skirting board along the length of the room. It’s a space that encourages both relaxation and play and each area functions as an alternative zone – for stories (speakers are set underneath the chair); for movement (the lamp projects interactive shapes onto the floor); and for games (the TV screen takes participants into a charming illustrated woodland).
The latter project was created by digital artist Chris O’Shea and Nexus Interactive Arts. O’Shea, who also designs toy and educational apps for children as Cowly Owl, worked in close consultation with clinical teams at the hospital. In creating the Woodland Wiggle environment he incorporated an Xbox Kinect camera in the front of the TV to record the childrens’ movements and play them back onscreen in real time.
Following a series of workshops with physiotherapists and occupational therapists, he then worked up a range of suitable actions for patients to perform, which then influenced the format and design of the games. “The installation had to work with a wide range of abilities, from wheelchair users, visually impaired, to bed bound children,” says O’Shea, “so simple movement filtering allows for triggering of music and paint with just a wave of the hands.”
New technologies are also being used in other hospitals in the capital. In 2012, Great Ormond Street commissioned Jason Bruges Studio to design an interactive forest wall along the length of the corridors leading to and from the operating theatre in the Morgan Stanley Clinical Building. The brief was to create a calming environment but also an engaging one along the route to the anaesthetic room. The studio designed a bespoke wallpaper, with integrated LED panels embedded according to the eye-level and position of patients travelling along the corridor. The animals’ movements are created via animated patterns of light, as they walk in between the trees and foliage.
At The Royal, the commitment to changing the experience of a stay in hospital is equally focused inside the wards. While the creative is perhaps not as groundbreaking as the interactive and immersive projects, the subtle changes brought about in here should be applauded. The faux beech over-bed tables and cabinets have been reworked with pictures of paper boats, for example. Textile designer Ella Doran’s work is best realised in the bedside curtains, however, in such a simple idea that it is sad to think of it not being (or becoming) the standard. Each curtain has a panoramic view of the city printed across it, complete with flowers and animals along the foreground, through to bridges and a busy cityscape beyond.
Throughout the children’s trauma ward it is Myerscough’s colourful vision, inspired by a trip to Delhi, that ties it all together. The designer created the large-scale graphics for the Activity Space (her mother, Betty, even designed the soft toys), but it’s in the brightly coloured dining rooms and corridors, over the doorways and in the reception area where Myerscough has really made an impression. Currently in the process of painting up several more metres of wallspace with her two assistants, the designer has worked closely in collaboration with Vital Arts director Anne Mullins and also senior sister paediatrics, Jo Lawler. Lawler has noticed how the artwork has caught the attention of patients and parents, but has also helped staff to get into more of a playful mindset; no doubt helpful when dealing with young patients. “Most children have a sense of ‘I’m not well’ when they’re confined to their bed space,” says Lawler. “Their first 24 hours might be very limited in terms of movement. Once they start being able to move a little bit, and be part of an interactive space, there’s a sense of moving on. For parents that’s really important, too.”
One parent who knows the The Royal’s efforts well is Tracy Palmer. Her daughter Daisy suffers from a rare disorder of the digestive system and is fed intravenously, requiring regular visits to the hospital. Last year, Daisy took part in a workshop with ceramicist Katharine Morling to create artwork for the ward and her work is now up on display. Morling made sketchbooks with the children which recalled favourite memories and toys, and then used these drawings to develop porcelain sculptures. “Daisy’s very proud to tell visitors to look out for her Winking Prawn boat design on the walls by the lift,” says Palmer. “There’s rarely anything positive to say about being in hospital for Daisy, but the artwork is at least something to give her just a little boost.”
As Sherry Manning, head of nursing paediatrics at Barts Health NHS Trust said at the launch of the Activity Space, “These spaces offer the opportunity for normalisation, for socialisation, for group participation as well as one-to-one support. They are spaces created away from the wards away from the confines of the hospitable bed where healing can be facilitated.” That design has become an important part of this process is something the industry should be proud of.