Air, Light, Water and the Health they Breed
Before the fluorescent lights, windowless rooms, and the smell of generic cleaners of today, hospitals were designed to be active participants in the process of healing.
Modern functionalism drove this philosophy home, leading to the construction of beautiful buildings that connected people to nature and interiors that made the stay feel luxe. Rather than relying on robust HVAC systems or hermetically sealed interior spaces, modernist hospitals were open to the sky and integrated into the landscape. Air and water were the medicine, and architecture the artifact that helped humans get closer to nature.
Prior to Robert Koch, people believed tuberculosis was hereditary, not contagious. Once bacteria was discovered as the root cause to disease, air and light became the number one fighting agents in space planning and hospital buildings shifted to let air flow through the building, preventing stagnation and the spread of diseases.
Healing centers started popping across Europe’s countryside, designed to house all those infected. Sanatoriums where part luxury resort, part hospital. Alvar Aalto’s work provides the best example by promoting the idea that luxury, isolation, air, light, and water would clear the patients’ bodies. This philosophy was epitomized in the Paimio Sanatorium in Finland. With grandiose balconies to let light in, radiant panels to minimize draft, and corner-less surfaces to make cleaning easy, the Paimio Sanatorium was the first of its time. A lot of the design decisions made in this building influenced modernist architecture to come. I particularly love the bold use of color throughout – vibrant, happy, and thoughtful.
Across the ocean, in Brasil, Lele was playing with innovative ceiling shapes that would move air throughout the building- keeping the tropical heat and humidity out.
In Le Corbusier’s proposal for a Venice hotel, each room was designed as a building unit, ventilated from above, and completely isolated from outside views allowed patients to control the amount of light that entered the room empower patients rest at their leisure.
As modern plumbing became accessible to the masses, bathhouses began to shift from being strictly about hygiene to luxurious wellness spas. Like the trendy yoga retreats today, these offered people a way to remove themselves from the city and connect back to nature where they could heal. Peter Zumpthor’s Therme Vals is a great example of this – the spaces planned around views of the landscape, directly connecting people to the environment it is set in. Though completed in 1996, the Therme Vals is intrinsically modernist in its approach.
Having spent three weeks in Japan last year, I can’t help but compare these to onsens and the ryokan culture of Hakone and the Japanese countryside. Sometimes humble and sometimes grandiose, Japanese bathhouses are still prevalent throughout modern Japan and part of daily life, practiced in conjunction with modern medicine not instead of.
With the raising popularity of new wellness practices, such as functional and preventative medicine, and alternative ways to health that don't rely solely on medicine, I wonder what lies ahead. If hospitals have been a laboratory for innovation, fluctuating cultural ideals and changing medical positions on contamination and healing will continue to lead to fantastical architectural inventions. I hope the future holds room for air, light, water, and the health they breed.
If not, I'll just have to book a trip to the beach and call in sick.