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While healthcare buildings have been the focus of much-needed expansion and transformation to cope with the pandemic, the inspired and strategic use of art has a power all its own, writes Veronica Simpson


Words by Veronica Simpson

With millions of design and architecture projects halted in their tracks, and so many creative enterprises and businesses worldwide struggling to survive, it was heartening to spend time talking with someone who has been able to deliver many aspects of her mission to enhance the environment of those who are front and centre of our thoughts at this time: the multitudes who are ill in hospital and those brave souls who are looking after them.

Vivienne Reiss is head of arts for London’s Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital (GOSH), and works as a consultant with other leading healthcare institutions, including the Maudsley Hospital and Guy’s and St Thomas’. I most recently experienced her curatorial flair in touring GOSH’s new Zayed Centre for Research. If I thought artist Mark Titchner’s giant text piece overlooking the lobby and shared laboratory of this innovative Stanton Williams’ building was heartening pre-lockdown, I can only imagine the vital, morale-boosting power that encountering disability campaigner Helen Keller’s words – ‘Together we can do so much’ – has gained subsequently, every time patients or staff enter and exit that building.

Children play with the interactive artworks installed at GOSH’s Zayed Centre for Research, which have been out of bounds during lockdownChildren play with the interactive artworks installed at GOSH’s Zayed Centre for Research, which have been out of bounds during lockdown

As London headed into lockdown, Reiss was still heading into work regularly, as were her colleagues – albeit on staggered schedules, to reduce the number of staff in the building at any one time – as they tried to keep the programme of building works on track. This included both new facilities and existing wards refurbished to help accommodate as many children as possible relocated from other hospitals, so that they could dedicate their wards to dealing with the pandemic.

But what role can art play at such drastic moments? A great deal more than mere wall adornment, as demonstrated by the quality and subtlety of the work that Reiss is commissioning, along with other colleagues elsewhere within the healthcare arts community. It can play a crucial role in bringing moments of humanity, even delight, into these clinical, often intimidating spaces.

For example, Reiss is working on GOSH’s Sight and Sound Centre for children with visual and hearing impairments, which is hoped to complete this winter. The work of two of its most celebrated commissioned artists – Lubna Chowdhary and Oliver Beer – will help to bring the building vividly to life in ways that have particular resonance for its patients. And as these works are embedded in the architecture, the artists and fabricators are on site to carry out enabling works for installs later this year.

Children play with the interactive artworks installed at GOSH’s Zayed Centre for Research, which have been out of bounds during lockdownChildren play with the interactive artworks installed at GOSH’s Zayed Centre for Research, which have been out of bounds during lockdown

To enhance and humanise the refurbishment of this building, first opened by entrepreneur Giovanni Battista Ortelli in 1884 as the Italian Hospital, Chowdhary has created hundreds of vibrantly coloured ceramic pieces – some in conjunction with local parents and families – to form tactile wall motifs in the waiting areas, which will also help with wayfinding. Sound artist Beer’s piece will animate the stairway. Called Pythagoras’ Stairs, it comprises hanging organ pipes, of varying lengths, each of which responds to puffs of air generated by sensors reacting to movements of patients and staff around the stairwell, evoking a sense of community and spontaneous choreography.

Sleep disturbances are something many of us are suffering from at this time. So it’s some comfort to know that, thanks to funding from Guy’s and St Thomas’ Charity, Reiss has managed to make much-needed improvements to the environment of Guy’s Sleep Disorders Centre working with the artist Susan Aldworth. Patients and staff took part in tours of the charity’s art collection on display across the trust, and a pop-up exhibition was organised at the centre. Co-curated with participants, the final selection of artworks includes mainly 20th-century abstract prints.

Says Reiss: ‘So many health facilities rely on artwork that draws on nature or that is representational work in an attempt to be reassuring in what are challenging environments. But in a place dedicated to treating and caring for those with sleep disorders, I feel these abstract artworks, which explore the convergence of real and imagined worlds, are harmonious as well as intriguing to the mind.’ The motif linking a series of prints and sculptural artworks by Aldworth is the pillowcase, and inspired by this work staff and patients have embroidered scenes onto pillowcases, embedding their dreams or stories of sleep. Last but surely not least, the walls of the unit also received a much-needed fresh lick of paint, to form a suitable backdrop for the new pictures; sometimes art can be an excuse for a vital, albeit basic, upgrade.

Children play with the interactive artworks installed at GOSH’s Zayed Centre for Research, which have been out of bounds during lockdownChildren play with the interactive artworks installed at GOSH’s Zayed Centre for Research, which have been out of bounds during lockdown

One strange twist to the 2020 schedule for Reiss was that she applied for and then won a Churchill scholarship in order to further her research in Denmark, where their reputation is to be much bolder with interactive and immersive art in contemporary healthcare settings, and the US, where the discipline and understanding of neuroaesthetics is really strong and has had interesting impacts on healthcare design and art. Those trips will obviously have to be parked until 2021.

But Reiss hopes to build on the success of an interactive intervention she commissioned back at the Zayed Centre’s welcoming outpatients lobby: a series of physical and digital elements co-created by consultancy Designmap and artist Judith Brocklehurst, together with young patient stakeholder groups, to help communicate some core scientific concepts. Although hugely popular, they are sadly now off limits thanks to the necessary health and safety measures this pandemic entails.



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