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Confronting architecture's creeping clinical undertones

Imperfect Health: The Medicalization of Architecture at the Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montreal, until 15 April 2012

Earlier this year, I purchased an ultrasonic humidifier for the bedroom of my young daughter, in the hope that it might ease a persistent cough. Every day, according to its instructions, I must wash out the murky sediment it leaves in its basin and on its sensor.

But of course I don’t remember to perform this operation every day, and even when I do there are inevitably days when I do so with less than optimal care, allowing a sometimes invisible residue to form. And so I am left to wonder, is this machine making my daughter’s environment better or worse?

The question was thrown into relief as I made my way through the exhibition ‘Imperfect Health: The Medicalization of Architecture’ at the Canadian Centre of Architecture. ‘It is found in ordinary affairs that one never seeks to avoid one trouble without running into another,’ reads one of the maxims that curators Giovanna Borasi and Mirko Zardini have placed throughout the show for thematic consideration. (That one comes courtesy of Machiavelli.)

Among the exhibits is a survey conducted between 2007 and 2010, the results of which indicate that dust from urban residences shows higher levels of potentially dangerous metals (including lead, mercury, arsenic, cadmium, copper, zinc and antimony) compared to outdoor samples. Was that what I was circulating in my daughter’s bedroom?

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The show opens with a provocative wall graphic asking, among other pertinent questions, ‘Why are you so scared?’ and ‘Is the future of architecture medicalization?’ To the first, the curators offer many possible answers, among them: cancer, allergies, obesity, epidemics, aging and death. On the second, they are somewhat less sure, writing that the exhibition is ‘meant to highlight the uncertainties and contradictions present in the ideas of health that are emerging in Western countries today’.

Certainly, though, the show posits a necessary preoccupation with the issue of health, broadly considered, in architecture and urbanism, and at the same time a wariness of the unintended consequences inevitably set off by our interventions. This is made manifest in one of the first installations, a grid of beautifully inked tree elevations drawn by Cesare Leonardi over 20 years, beginning in the early 1960s.

It was Leonardi’s goal to create a convenient arborial graphic standard for landscape architects, and he did, but its widespread ‘misuse’ came with the side effect of introducing into cities a variety of species that trigger allergic and asthmatic responses.

Despite such risks, the health benefits of adding green spaces to the city are undeniable, and the exhibition offers numerous inventive alternatives, ranging from hypo-allergenic gardens to buildings cloaked in skins of vegetation to vast structures that are ecosystems unto themselves.

Among the most practical of these are a series of pioneering vertical garden facades (‘murs végétal’), designed by botanist Patrick Blanc and landscape architect Michel Desvigne for buildings in Bordeaux and Paris – walls alive with plants that ‘introduce biodiversity, clean the air, and reduce energy consumption by influencing the building’s internal temperature’. 

The typological inversion of these projects, which take their form from a surface that breathes clean air into the environment, is offered by a 2002 Bangkok museum proposal by Paris-based firm R&Sie(n). Here, the surface is created not by breathing out, but by sucking particulate matter from the air by means of electrostatic attraction.

‘The building would clean the air by getting itself dirty,’ write the curators, forming an architecture of toxic accretion. Similar in concept, Breathing Room, a proposal by New York architect Kayt Brumder, imagines facades as ‘protective filters’ for the heavily polluted industrial cities of La Oroya (Peru), Linfen (China) and Norilsk (Russia).

The contaminated air of the urban environment is a problem we must confront daily, and has been for some time. In the middle of the 19th century, the Polish physician Feliks Boczkowski developed ‘speleotherapy’, the treatment of asthma and other respiratory illnesses in the mineral rich air of salt mines.

The practice is still common in Eastern Europe, as illustrated by Kiril Kuletski’s photographs of Ukraine’s Solotvyno Clinic, situated in tunnels and galleries some 300m below ground, which maintain a constant temperature of 22˚C.

The idea of creating hygienic space, of course, has been a fixation of the modern movement since its earliest days as a force for social reform. The obsession was taken to its logical extreme by Alison and Peter Smithson in their 1956 House of the Future –represented here in a large sketch – a synthetic home of moulded-plastic surfaces with an airlock door.

Upon entry, this domicile’s ‘users’ (note that choice of term) were automatically showered, blow-dried and placed in nylon suits to maintain its hermetic, sterile environment. Even food was subjected to gamma rays, to kill bacteria.

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That house appears a droll parody of yesterday’s futurism until you arrive in the next gallery, to be confronted by a series of projects on the subject of medical quarantine. The practice, originated in Venice during the years of the Black Death, has achieved a new and terrifying currency in this age of SARS, BSE and antibiotic resistance.

Among the responses exhibited here, an inflatable Domestic Isolation Room Unit by David Garcia Studio and a plan, by Front Studio Architects, for Q-City, which divides urban infrastructure into parallel, segregated spaces – one for the healthy, one for the contaminated – a dystopia that seems pulled from a China Miéville novel.

In truth, the aged and infirm already exist in their own segregated spaces, both by nature and choice. This point is made most literally by MIT AgeLab’s Age Gain Now Empathy System (AGNES) prosthesis – a suit that constricts vision and movement to mimic the experience of a 70-year-old. (Alas, it does not improve conditions if worn by an 80-year-old.)

The exhibition presents several projects that respond to the body’s progressive decline: planned communities for the aged, elderly care centres, hospices. Among the most creative is Niall McLaughlin Architects’ Orchard Respite Centre, in Dublin, a facility for Alzheimer’s patients, designed to reduce anxiety and disorientation by eliminating long corridors and cul-de-sacs, and facilitating wayfinding through light, colour, material, and even smell (from kitchens and dining areas).

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Though it addresses the architectural needs of the elderly and terminally ill, what is most remarkably absent from the exhibition is the hospital, the defining physical manifestation of the exhibition’s title, and a type in drastic need of creative thinking. The decision to leave it out was strategic. ‘A hospital is already part of the problem,’ Zardini told me. ‘We do not want to reduce the problem of health to the treatment of medical illness, but say that health now is a general concern.’

The exhibition concludes with Superstudio’s 1971 City of Hemispheres, a collage of a rolling meadow populated by sheep and hovering domes. At its centre is a crystalline plane – an abstracted city of 10 million, each occupant ‘living’ in a transparent sarcophagus through which they breathe conditioned air and receive anti-aging sustenance intravenously. From their pristine enclosures, they experience the world via the floating domes, each of which is a ‘sensory apparatus’ that relays information back to the immobile body.

This verdant landscape, at once beautiful and terrifying, reads as the ultimate representation of what a fully medicalized architecture might be. It is a long and impossible journey from my daughter’s impure humidifier to that utopian city, but the show suggests that we have already started to proceed down the road.

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