The Architecture Project recently invited us to visit the city of Aarhus, Denmark as part of a press tour related to health and architecture (Better Health Press Tour 2015), with the aim of seeing the latest "healing" projects that are arising in the city.
Overshadowed for years by Copenhagen, Aarhus is a port city that seeks to reinvent itself and shine once again -- and it is succeeding. The pleasant surprise is that it is the architects who have driven this change. Architecture has invaded all of the city's spaces, from the forgotten industrial port to the downtown areas full of historical buildings.
This visit has taught us some important lessons: "healing architecture" isn't only about hospital projects, but rather about encouraging people, about creating friendly spaces to live and coexist, and about getting as connected as possible with users to give them what they really need.
Check out some of the strategies used to achieve these goals after the break.
Aarhus: A Beacon That Lights Up
The Architecture Project is a group that seeks to generate occasions to bring together architects, municipalities, investors, and other related persons with the aim of making better cities. Through these meetings, each party can put their tools, skills and abilities on the table to create new opportunities for advancement.
"How does one develop the city holistically to create spaces for all aspects of our lives and do so in a sustainable way? Not only in the strict sense of implementing green technologies, but socially and culturally as well. Green growth is about creating urban places where there is space for everyone."
Mayor of Aarhus, during the opening of the exhibition Create with aarhUS, organized by The Architecture Project
The development plan for the city of Aarhus is intended for an estimated 20-year growth, including 75,000 new residents, 50,000 jobs, 15,000 places for students and 50,000 new homes. Among other things, the architectural plans are focusing on the transformation of some notable points of the city, densifying areas through high-level architecture and comprehensive urban planning.
In all of these urban initiatives, sustainability is a constant theme. Not only with the aim of reducing their carbon footprint, but also to ensure the development of a city built for and with its citizens. With this goal in mind, the architects in charge are deploying a range of strategies to form a relationship with the people who will later inhabit their projects, using their needs, traditions and previous experiences as starting points for the design process.
Architects in Search of Feedback
With ambitious goals like these, it is critical to thoroughly understand the variables necessary to reach them. Danish architects -like many others around the world- seem to understand that a project is successful when it responds directly to the needs of the people who inhabit it. Simple common sense.
"The aim of an involving process is to create a mutual understanding of the project and to build up ownership and roots in the local community. At the same time, this approach shall supply the consultants with the necessary basis so that they are able to transform the client’s intentions into the best project possible."
Because of their complexity, the projects we visited are an excellent example of how to tackle this challenge, since in these cases it is particularly necessary to design, with great care, for people looking for physical and spiritual well-being. They are, for the most part, spaces meant to be occupied temporarily in order to heal and then return to everyday life; spaces that, for those few days, should make the "patient" feel at home. How do you relate to diverse and varied users -invisible to the architect- but also important to the process?
- ADAPTABLE SPACES
Setting Up the User Experience
The first visit took us to the town of Sølund, 25 km from Aarhus, where we saw a residence designed to stimulate the senses of adults with disabilities, people living with the cognitive development of that of a child between three months and three years. The curved shape of the building joins a small green hill and is crossed by a central corridor leading patients to eight different rooms: rooms for hearing, sight, smell, taste and touch. The tour ends in a "sense garden," with various recreational elements and stimulating plants.
In a situation like this, it is necessary to find a way to connect with patients who you don't know at all, and who have difficulty moving and understanding a space. The architects in charge of the project, Aarhus Arkitekterne, took this apparent disadvantage as an opportunity, accommodating the patient experience through technology and making it part of the treatment. Thus, a series of white rooms are transformed through lighting, sound and the projection of moving images, taking the patient to places he may never be able to visit in his life.
This strategy is successful and allows for the effective treatment of a number of patients, but not everyone can afford it and it isn't scalable, since it requires a high monetary investment in order to be implemented and run over time. However, beyond the fact that these technologies are not yet available to everyone, flexibility and adaptability were key to complying with the project's goals and to ensuring that it functions properly.
And Other Innovative Inventions
When you have the chance to meet the future inhabitants of a project, the most obvious and direct way to build a relationship with them is through dialogue. In the next projects that we visited, as well as in the building we just described, the first strategy used by the architects to understand the user was one-on-one interviews. As we're dealing with projects within the health field, most of the feedback comes from hospital staff as well as patients and families who have been involved in clinical trials before. But some teams have gone even further.
Climate Adaptation Park in Viborg, designed by the architects of Møller & Grønborg, presents an interesting strategy for dealing with the future occupants of the space. In terms of health, this project is more preventative in nature. It is a large city park (25 acres), which seeks to promote sports and outdoor activities. The project was developed through a workshop that brought together all the parties involved, conducting surveys with nearby neighbors, related groups (rowing teams, nature conservation groups, etc.) and finally the rest of people living in the area .
To speed up the process and increase the level of response, the architects created cards with attractive, mock-up images of the park, that people could write their interests and ideas on. At the same time, they created a website and Facebook page that are kept updated to this day. The feedback they received paved the way to a successful project, which now receives visitors from all parts of the community.
- FULL SCALE MODELS
Allowing Users to Experiment
After seeing smaller-scale projects and interventions, we went to visit the construction site of the largest hospital complex in Danish history: the New University Hospital in Aarhus, designed by CF Møller. The project consists of the renovation and expansion of Skejby hospital (built in 1985) to include 970,000 total square meters, 797 beds, 43 dialysis places and 80 hotel beds. The existing building works well, so they retained it and replicated these qualities in the development of the new project.
Again, the users were consulted, but this time, using what is now a common practice in the office, a number of full scale models were made, which hospital officials could test out. The models were made of simple and easy to handle materials, to be re-configured in areas in situ, according to the feedback received.
"The functional layout and space planning of new hospitals are developed and tested in the Designlab, a full scale mock-up facility where designers and hospital staff can check and refine the operations of future facilities in a co-creational process."
Using this strategy, emphasis was placed on the design of individual rooms. In addition to natural light and garden views, each room is designed to make the patient feel welcomed and not to notice the huge building that makes up their present surroundings. This prototype can be seen at the visitor center of the building, where there are also models, floor plans and renderings of the future hospital.
- CITIZEN PARTICIPATION
Architecture Takes To the Streets (and Social Networks)
Out in the "real world," life in the open air and shared with others is important for keeping the inhabitants of a city healthy. With this in mind, Aarhus has set a goal to reactivate its public spaces through architecture, creating and re-creating meeting points for citizens and interaction.
One of the most emblematic examples of this process is the Dokk1, designed by Schmidt Hammer Lassen Architects, which forms an integral part of the transformation plan for Aarhaus' inner harbor, reformulating its industrial past and reconnecting the city with the water. Planned as a "covered square," the building not only brings people together around culture and the arts, but it also functions as a nexus between the various streams of the city.
In this case, as a starting point, the architects used a tool that the Municipal Council of the city has made available to all project implementers of public relevance: The Aarhus model for Citizen Involvement. This democratic instrument allowed the architects to gather the ideas and wishes of the residents as a collective intelligence, shaping a building that received more than 500,000 visitors in the first four months. Social networks are an important part of this reach, where the hashtag #Dokk1 has achieved great popularity, uniting the user experience through photography, videos and comments.
"In the library #dokk1 this artwork by Kristine Roepstorff is making a sound each time a baby is born in the community's hospital. Then people in the library applaud spontaneously."
@textweb on Instagram
- POST-OCCUPANCY EVALUATIONS
The Long Term Effect of Our Work
Positive or negative, previous experience always allows us to improve upon the next project. Along these lines, it is very important to analyze the behavior of previous works and draw lessons. Architects from AART, for example, have joined the Alexandra Institute, which specializes in anthropological studies of physical spaces, in order to carry out social surveys to document the social performance of its already completed buildings.
"In order to understand the social impact of the built environment, the best place to start is to explore the user experience. By interviewing and observing users, you get a feel of the architecture and how it affects the users' physiological comfort and psychological well-being. In other words, it is essential to study the built environment through an anthropological lens if you strive to grasp and further improve the social performance of architecture."
The surveys follow a set of defined parameters and study variables related to the use (functions), comfort (indoor climate, lighting), aesthetics (materials, shapes, details), the relationship with the context (social, cultural and physical), social facilities (spaces of interaction), fluency (ease of movement, universal design) and the environment (relationship with the surroundings).
- THE IMPORTANCE OF DETAILS
Beyond the strategies mentioned in this article, all the projects visited had one thing in common: the importance of details.
We were particularly struck by how the Danish architects, with both small or large scale projects - even up to the level of city planning - spend much of their time designing parts or elements that will enable better use of the space in the future. To a greater or lesser extent, this immediately establishes a link between the user and the architect in charge, earning their trust and admiration. They are small gestures that do not translate into increased spending and that return the human scale to architecture, regardless of its size.
All of these successful strategies serve to reaffirm the importance architects have in the challenge the city of Aarhus has set for itself. Architects have managed to be influential simply because people feel heard.