Building for a Longer Lifetime - Architects’ Journal

February 2011

Text William J. Curtis
Images Nick Kane

Níall McLaughlin’s Alzheimer’s Respite Centre is a new type of building for an ageing society, says William JR Curtis.

Within a generation, one in six people in the UK might live to be 100 years old, according to a recent report from the Department of Work and Pensions. This is a projected  statistic, but still a firm reminder that many more people are living into old age than ever before. This means that the problem of care for the elderly is only just dawning upon many families and, of course, upon the state. Precisely when the welfare state is being undermined on all sides by dubious ideological manipulation, the need for support for health and welfare is actually growing.

This situation may lead to the creation of new building types to provide specialist care for part time inmates while also giving them a sense of belonging to a community. Such flexible institutions may provide a sense of solidarity among afflicted individuals while alleviating relationships with their families, relatives and friends.

This is precisely the relevance of schemes such as the Alzheimer’s Respite Centre at Blackrock just to the south of Dublin, designed by Níall McLaughlin Architects. Alzheimer’s disease affects memory and the sense of belonging in the world: it causes confusion about the sense of time and the sense of place. A person with this condition has to be reminded all the time where he or she is, and where he or she comes from. There is a strong impulse to wander around by circuitous routes, but this is combined with the need to come back to a recognisable and safe base. The Alzheimer’s Respite Centre responds to these psychological and physical requirements by establishing a protected precinct of courts, gardens, interconnected social spaces, and private individual rooms, all of which connect with the walled gardens outside. The social purpose of the building is beautifully translated into a plan that combines a safe perimeter by incorporating an existing orchard wall, an interlocking patterns of gardens and buildings, a series of high, well-lit pavilions with sliding doors permitting a wandering route, and a private zone for lower individual rooms, a bit like the cells in a monastery or convent.

‘To fix a plan is to have had ideas’, said Le Corbusier, and the drawings of the Alzheimer’s Respite Centre reveal a dynamic interplay between walls and planes of different length in a pinwheel arrangement that permits spaces to flow into each other as one moves around, guided in part by diagonal views, variable room heights, and changing intensities of light. The overall atmosphere established is one of great calm: it is a rest home in which groups can be found working together on projects, watching television, or just silting quietly in armchairs. The Respite Centre takes the pressure off families in which a member suffers from Alzheimer’s, by according the enfeebled individual a temporary home, but without the depressing features of much hospital and clinic architecture.

There is a sense of protective enclosure without one of being imprisoned; there are always alluring views of plants, lawns, allotments and, of course, the low walls, which are mostly made from a warm, pale yellow textured stock brick. The other main material is wood, which is used on the pavilion roofs and for windows, doors and panels. These materials are sympathetic in themselves but they are handled with great skill and conceptual elegance: the story of this work is told through the interaction of a brick labyrinth of extending planes and a timber system of pavilions conjugated with beams, panels, transoms and roofs, all adjusted to the human scale.

In other words, McLaughlin has succeeded in establishing an architectural language appropriate to the ethos behind his project. When I visited the Respite Centre, I was struck by the attention given to humane details such as low, built-in benches made of wood in individual rooms where family members could be expected to spend a lot of time. The zone set aside for staff and help was discreetly separated, while each person’s room was signalled by a different bright colour at the entrance. The visitor proceeds through layers before coming to the patient’s wing which is sequestered and quiet. The only disappointment in all this was the failure of the long walls shown in plan to develop spatial continuity. The rooms are more compartmentalised than they appear in the drawings. The entrance zone is not really up to the same level as the rest of the building, having something of the air of a reception area in a modest hotel. The joy of this complex is in the garden spaces, which in and of themselves have a healing effect. In fact, the centre is installed in the remains of an 18th-century walled kitchen garden with some solid granite walls. It is interesting how much of the best recent Irish work is slotted into intervals left over by old institutional buildings and their surrounding dependences.

The Respite Centre is well integrated into the fragmented context and stitches it back together in an intervention of architectural surgery. McLaughlin’s evocative coloured conceptual drawings for the project (which recall Persian miniatures in the way they present plan and elevation simultaneously, and also remind one of some of Hassan Fathy’s drawings or those of Balkrishna Doshi) present the Respite Centre as a sort of verdant paradise: truly a garden of healing. Behind these somewhat ‘false naive’ presentations there is a highly sophisticated understanding of the history of modern architecture.

The extending planes and centripetal spaces put one in mind of Mies van der Rohe’s unbuilt ‘Brick Pavilion’ of 1922, while the wooden lanterns floating above a labyrinth recall Rudolf Schindler’s own house in Hollywood of the same year. The abstraction of monastic prototypes has had a little help from Louis Barragán’s secretive residence in Tacubaya, Mexico City, of 1947. Part of the art of architecture is to hide the art of architecture, and the Respite Centre has a commendable send of modesty.

At a time of social fragmentation, excessive architectural gestures, artistic narcissism, what a relief to find a building that is caring in its purpose, intelligent and cultivated in its form and well-crafted in its construction. McLaughlin and the client, the Alzheimer Society of lreland, deserve praise. In the future, this building may well serve as a prototype in dealing with the social, physical and emotional problems likely to emerge in an ageing population.

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