Sabine von Fischer speaks to Reinier de Graaf on OMA’s intentions behind the hospital of the future. In part three of this conversation we finish by talking orientalism, symbolisms, the generic and 3D-printing… Happy readings…
Another term that I wanted to launch, since you’ve been planning a lot in the Far East, is the notion of Orientalism. More recently, the anthropologist Ahmad Kenna has detected what he calls a “Reverse Orientalism”: In cities like Doha and Dubai, the Oriental now is romanticized as a hyper-technical world.
I think that applies particularly in the context of Qatar; this is a phase, at least in the Qatari context, that has already been passed. From a moment, when Qatar became independent, they first worried about looking as much as possible like America. Then they worried very much about their position in the Arab world. Now, they increasingly embrace their own vernacular and their own indigenous way of doing things as a way forward: More recent architectural projects in Qatar are not these hyper-technical things. They’re in a way the discovery of their own vernacular as a very efficient way of dealing with their complex surroundings: with their climate, with the desert, et cetera. I think there is an inevitable delay between the end of colonial dependance and truly coming of your own.
You believe thus that Jean Nouvel’s Rose in the desert is referring to traditions?
Yes, in a certain way. The Rose is a very good building. I have been there. It’s an extremely intelligent response to the context. And of course, it’s a building that took ages to create. And I’m sure it’s a building in which the locals and the local context, there’s an enormous stake, much more so than the skyline you see going up in West Bank. It is for me is an interesting hybrid. It’s also a curious thing that you don’t know whether you’re looking at something utterly futuristic or something extremely primordial.
Jean Nouvel’s museum building carries a lot of symbolism. Your masterplan, as you say, is a generic building. It this then the opposite?
We’re just too ignorant to put symbolism in things. We just simply haven’t got the brain.
OMA has done buildings that have produced symbolism.
Like the CCTV tower.
I think that is a symbolism other people have read into it retroactively.
With other buildings, I would talk about a narrative.
Yes, this particular building has a narrative too.
What is the narrative?
Well, it’s the narrative about its genericness. How do we define the hospital of the future, when the future of the hospital itself is a permanent unknown? That is the narrative of the building. Most hospitals, like airports, are in a state of permanent conversion and in a way they have to be designed to be in a permanent state of conversion. This building is a process rather than a product. This is a building that doesn’t assume any finite state. So, what is a hindrance and a source of irritation in airports and hospital alike, here, is in a way, a point of departure. And that’s what I mean if you take certain unsolvable problems, if you start from another point of view that you think that there is a reason for this and you make them part of a conceptual approach rather than an enemy, that I think a real beauty can emerge in the wake of that type of intelligence. So that is the narrative here.
How do the technical world and the aesthetic design create a specific atmosphere, a kind of mental environment, that works towards the well-being of the patients?
One of the things we’ve done, we’ve combined modularity with 3D-printing. And of course, the beauty of 3-D-printing is that it can turn ornament into an instant thing, whereas the emotive quality of old, ornate building took years, decades, sometimes a century, to produce. 3D printing gives us something where we can turn that into stenography at almost any instant. Some of the public spaces and some of the courtyards and external spaces in the hospital rely exactly on that. There’s an enormous amount of variation in the context of a repetitive building. Each courtyard, each space is different to the point that in certain courtyards, we’ve even proposed to 3D-print vegetation in a climate where vegetation doesn’t really grow that easily. So there is the repetitive clinical aspect of the hospital spaces itself, which have to be cleaned, which have to be clinical, which have to be efficient.
Are you expecting the greenery and the courtyard design to contribute to the well-being of the patients and to getting people healthy?
It’s of course a tandem thing. If you go into a hospital, there is the chemical aspect of the pharmaceutical aspect of receiving a drug that gets you well. But our whole system in the West is geared to keep people that are sick out of the hospital. And if they have to go there, to keep them there as short as possible, because it costs a lot of money. The privatization of health care has taken this to the extreme, that has also had its effect on the environment of hospitals. Because if you’re not staying there anyway, why invest in that psychological aspect here? – That is a different thing in Qatar. Admittedly, because it’s a rich country, and it’s a country with very generous public funds dedicated to health care. That pressure doesn’t exist in the same way, so people are in the hospital longer and therefore it’s important that they receive the right drugs. But it’s also important that they receive an appropriate and benign environment. So at least it is not a dystopian environment that makes them even more sick.
In certain perspectives we’ve drawn a line down the middle: To the left, you see the clinical environment, to the right, you see the view and they’re almost two completely contrasting worlds. It tries to sort of bring the best of both worlds, both towards inside these crosses and these grids. But then an emotive words in the form of courtyards, which of course have a long tradition in Islamic architecture and a long tradition, particularly in Islamic hospitals. In old Islamic hospitals, the gardens even had event’s programs like music, gardening and all kinds of healing activities considered to be benign for the curing of patients. It brings together these two. We’re working on a book about it, which is about the size of the Koran.
You are saying the hospital is there to keep people away from the city and to keep them separate. What about a sense of community?
Call it a resort, although I don’t like that word either, but it has a certain amount of those qualities since people have to be there for whatever length of time, particularly inpatients, who have to stay there longer.
You bring the courtyard of the traditional Arab hospital as a core element into your design.
I mean, it’s also fairly obvious thing, we claim no originality.
Should we talk about originality? At the last architecture Biennale in Venice, your contribution was one of the very few projects that addressed the pandemic, that was strikingly original.
Is that a good or a bad thing?
I think it’s a very good thing. It’s bad for the Biennale. Later I realized that you had launched the hospital as a theme already beforehand.
Yes. It was a lucky coincidence. But of course, these are meant to happen.
After all of this research on hospitals, what have you found: How much can architecture contribute to the future of the hospital, since it is such a technologically driven discipline?
The hospital is a building, so I think architecture can contribute by definition.
Buy Reinier de Graaf’s novel, The Masterplan, published by Archis, here.
See the version of the interview, in German, published in Espazium, here.
Reinier de Graaf (1964, Schiedam) is a Dutch architect and writer. He is a partner in the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), where he leads projects in Europe and the Middle East. Reinier is the co-founder of OMA’s think-tank AMO and Sir Arthur Marshall Visiting Professor of Urban Design at the University of Cambridge. He is the author of the essay collection ‘Four Walls and a Roof: The Complex Nature of a Simple Profession’ and the novel ‘The Masterplan’.
OMA / Reinier de Graaf, together with Buro Happold, has finalized the design for the Al Daayan Health District in Doha, commissioned by Hamad Medical Corporation (HMC). Located on a 1.3 million-sqm plot of virgin land, the project explores the potential of modularity, prefabrication, and automation in relation to the rapid changes in medical science.
The centerpiece of the district is a two-story structure that brings together a tertiary teaching hospital, a women’s and children’s hospital and an ambulatory diagnostics center, with a total capacity of 1,400 beds. Clinical facilities occupy the first floor; bed wards are located on the ground floor, reducing the dependency on elevators and allowing patients to enjoy the complex’s generous gardens – healing spaces with a long history in Islamic medical architecture.
Cross-shaped modular units, prefabricated onsite, can be reconfigured and expanded with minimal disruption to ongoing processes, significantly lowering the cost of future adaptations. 3D-printing allows for endless variations in the design of the facades, reintroducing ornament in an architectural typology usually characterized by austerity. A high-tech farm supplies food and medical plants for the local production of medicine. All supporting facilities are connected to the hospitals by an automated underground circulation system. A dedicated logistics center and solar farm enable the district to function autonomously.