We live in an era in where it is easier and cheaper to throw old things away and buy new ones rather than fixing them. New things might have a higher monetary value, but what about the historical and emotional value?
Every building is a product of its own time and reflects the style and the level of technology of that period. Hospital buildings in particular change according to the progress of medicine and science. In the 70’s, for example, it was a common belief that people with mental illnesses should be kept well away from society. It is only recently we have acknowledged that asylum patients had to suffer atrocious cures like total isolation and electric shock. Fortunately, medicine has improved since then, but abandoning the buildings where these practices were perpetrated is like willing to erase our past.
During the 18thand 19thCentury, there was a proliferation of purpose-built hospitals to suit a range of needs: asylums, psychiatric hospitals (originally called idiot and imbecile establishments), children’s care houses and epilepsy sanatoria in various isolated locations around Greater London. Around 150 purpose-built asylums and hospitals were constructed - the prosperity of the period resembled in the sumptuousness of the architecture, but after World War I, the economic priorities changed and the building boom decreased significantly.
Many hospitals were built in rural settings for the benefit of the patients to enjoy the fresh air and the tranquility of the countryside. They had confined large grounds and kitchen gardens for therapeutic use by the inmates, and also for their recreation and that of the staff. There are few hospital landscapes which remain entirely untouched since their construction, many were often modified when extra facilities or new equipment were needed. The major structural change was the addition of the so-called airing courts, which were confined green areas adjacent to the patients' rooms where they could “breathe” without surveillance. Most of the boundaries – enclosure walls, iron fences, and gates were removed during the 20thCentury when the policies regarding patients’ health and safety allowed them more freedom to access the grounds. However, long closed path systems and fences are still to be seen.
The late 20thCentury NHS estate rationalization policies and the change of approach to treating many illnesses, especially psychiatric disorders, resulted in an almost complete closure of these buildings. Some have been sold and redeveloped in various ways, mainly luxurious flats or holiday houses, but the majority have been abandoned, leading to their slow degradation and ruin.
Located in Epsom, West Park Hospital is the eleventh and last insane hospital built in a long line of asylums in the Greater London area. Opened in 1921, it is built on a US model: many small buildings and patients wards connected by long closed corridors to prevent any attempt to escape. The asylum was like an independent village - isolated in a rural setting, it hosted up to 2000 patients by the 1960’s.
As a consequence of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s “Care in the Community” policy, many asylums all over the country were forced to close and most patients were set free. Some had a home to go to, but the majority had serious problems reintegrating into society after being removed from it for so many years. West Park emptied gradually, finally closing its doors in the mid 90’s.
Now abandoned and, apart from the effects of the erosion of time, West Park Hospital has suffered from acts of vandalism, including a fire in 2002 that burnt down the main hall. In 2006 proposals for the site included the development of luxurious flats and holiday residences, but to date, these plans have not been actioned and nothing has been done to stop the decadence of this important piece of British heritage.
Like West Park and many other asylums, Springfield Hospital was closed down in the late 1990’s and never reopened. Designed in Tudor Gothic style and located in Tooting, South London, it was built in 1840. A proposal for the redevelopment of the site was submitted in 2008 and refused. The building is now boarded up and surrounded by numerous new construction sites within the confined area of St Georges Mental Health NHS Trust.
Known to have been one of the most advanced brain surgery centers in the world, Atkinson Morley Hospital (AMH) was founded in 1869 and was the first ever hospital to use a CAT scanner on humans in 1972 by Sir Godfrey Hounsfield, who went on to win the Nobel prize in medicine. The hospital was opened thanks to a generous donation by Sir Atkinson Morley, a wealthy landowner who was once a medical student at St George’s Hospital. It was built in Second Empire style on 1800 acres of land in Wimbledon.
This style refers to the Second French Empire of Napoleon III and it is characterized by sculptural details around the doors and windows that have the scope of making the structure appear imposing and expensive. During the World War II, the AMH acted as an emergency hospital and a specialist Neurosurgery Unit, which even had its own helicopter landing facility. The hospital remained open until 2003 when neurology services were relocated to the nearby hospital of St George. The building is now abandoned and expensive medical equipment can still be found inside.
In 1880, The Royal Alexandra Hospital for Children was built in Victorian style at the top of Clifton Hill, in central Brighton. Over the years additions to expand the hospital were made until the structure was declared unsuitable for caring services in 2003. The building is intact and remains untouched; there are still children’s pictures in the windows and colorful paintings along the corridor’s walls.
Taylor Wimpey, an experienced developer, acquired the site without planning permission with the intention of demolishing it and building flats. The current appeal includes concessions and a guarantee to the government to provide a percentage of affordable housing, commercial floor space, a GP surgery and a pharmacy. The greater the concession the higher the chance of succeeding and obtaining permission. Twice their planning application has been rejected although they continue to appeal this decision.
Progress is the word of the present, but sometimes we need to look at the past to understand the present. The historical and architectural memory are fundamental in keeping a country alive, as much as the ecology and the building heritage are. It might be cheaper to rebuild a totally new structure in a different area, but what about the occupation of the soil, the erosion and the deforestation caused by our incessant need of raw materials to build new houses, new shopping centers, and new hospitals? The few green areas left on earth are suffocating within the huge sprawl of cement and little – or nothing – is being done to stop this trend.
© GIULIA CANDUSSI. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.