Weaving an urban narrative, this steampunk soundscape reanimates a neglected corner of a childrenʼs hospital
You may recall the scene: an army of nurses aided by Mary Poppins do battle with Captain Hook, the Child Catcher and other monstrous villains of fiction as author JK Rowling reads from Peter Pan. The sequence was part of the 2012 London Olympic Games opening ceremony and the combination of characters was pertinent. All came from the pages of British children’s books and were played by staff from London’s Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH), the oldest medical facility specifically for children in the world.
The ceremony underscored a historic link between British literature and GOSH that dates back to its inception when Charles Dickens, a close friend of the hospital’s founder Charles West,became an instrumental fundraiser. In 1913 resident surgeon Robert Bridges was made Poet Laureate, while in 1929 JM Barrie bequeathed his Peter Pan copyright to the hospital on condition that the amount of money it generates is never disclosed. It is in this tradition and partly funded by Peter Pan royalties, that Studio Weave’s chapter at GOSH begins.
a concept drawing shows young patients looking out onto the installation
The hospital is developing an ambitious masterplan that will see the Southwood Building (now the oldest medical building in London) demolished to make way for a public square surrounded by a combination of existing and future clinical facilities. In the 15-year interim, the 1938 structure must remain operational while new buildings go up around it.
The result is a curious condition in which brand new wards with floor-to ceiling glazing designed to eventually overlook a leafy square instead abut the grimy rear elevation of the Southwood Building encrusted with a jumble of pipes accumulated over decades of shoehorning new services into the brickwork. Research has repeatedly demonstrated a clear link between hospital environment and patient health, so in a bid to enliven this awkward in-between space, GOSH launched an open competition to design an installation for the alley.
Studio Weave’s winning scheme is an interconnected arrangement of pipes, trumpets, ducts, gaskets and valves snaking up the alley like a steampunk Heath Robinson cartoon come to life. The configuration of pipework whimsically suggests how lullabies might be fabricated in the industrial quantities required by a children’s hospital to lull its 387 patients to sleep. Melodies start life in a cylindrical chamber peppered with knobs and dials then zigzag their way across the facade constantly refined, tuned and amplified by filters until they reach one of more than 60 trumpets of various sizes.
Of course it’s a conceit; the factory doesn’t actually make a sound but a platform accessible at ground level from the hospital’s restaurant lets visitors listen to a specially composed lullaby piped through a quartet of bulbous listening horns while patients can also tune in to the lullaby factory on the in-hospital radio network
gramophone-style trumpets flare
some horns at ground level produce an audible lullaby, composed by sound artist Jessica Curry
Rather than tidy away the tangle of aging plant work, Studio Weave’s defining move was to embrace and embellish it, appropriating existing services as components of their factory. In one place, brass and gold pipes wrap around an existing gas main. Elsewhere a metre-wide air-conditioning duct is adorned in valves and buttons like the shaft of a giant clarinet. Although the whole cannot be seen at once, oblique views and fragments of the factory are visible from every floor transforming the otherwise bleak light well.
The brief was riddled with logistical obstacles. The irregular site is 30 metres long but just a metre wide in places, while the buildable area was limited to the facade of the Southwood Building as no element could touch the alley floor or hang from the new wards. Meeting the challenge head-on, the architects used 3-D scanning to survey the alley, mapping in the centre lines of each existing pipe and gradually building up an accurate digital model.
The factory itself is a combination of reclaimed and bespoke components employing multiple fabrication processes. One set of trumpets are spunaluminium, shaped using chucks originally for mass producing Second World War fighter planes. Another set have the appearance of cast bronze but are in fact glass-reinforced plastic moulded over CNC-milled polystyrene then given a metallic finish.
In their choice of materials the architects have deftly avoided the patronising primary colour palette that so often dominates design projects where children are involved − a temptation sadly succumbed to in the neighbouring hospital restaurant whose seven undulating strips of colour-cycling lighting were set to ‘rainbow mode’ for my visit.
Studio Weave’s assembly evokes an almost Edwardian sensibility that feels dignified and will weather elegantly.
Studio Weave has proved that it is possible to marry an absorbing narrative with forensic architectural detailing, reconfiguring urban detritus as architectural opportunities and breathinglife into dying spaces.
the sculptural horns are an imaginative addition to a tangled pipe-scape in a dead space between buildings old and new
The Lullaby Factory could be seen as an enchanting but unlikely one-off. Exactly the right client just happened to have the right site and took a chance on the right architects, culminating in a project that will delight staff and patients for 15 years then quietly retreat.
But this would be to sell it short. There are thousands of similar rear-conditions lurking down alleys and in the forgotten corners of towns and cities. Such landscapes of pipes and protruding services are a perpetual feature of the urban realm crying out for attention.
‘Our approach is about teasing out the inherent character of a site and celebrating it’, explains Studio Weave co-founder Maria Smith. ‘Rather than importing some abstract idea we find the qualities in a location and work with them. We try to make the places we work in the best versions of themselves.’
Here the architects have tapped into the British literary tradition of the hospital, recalling the dreamlike writing of Roald Dahl and weaving in their own narrative between complex technical challenges and a tight budget. Playful in appearance and sincere in intent, it demonstrates a lightness of touch that could lift the spirits of many neglected urban spaces.
Architect: Studio Weave
Photographs: Edmund Sumner
Lullaby: Jessica Curry