We were in Barcelona last month with our two favorite architects, Julia and Elliot. Of course, we wanted to see the many buildings created by another favorite architect, Antoni Gaudi. A friend also clued us in that, if we wanted to see some really good architecture, we shouldn’t miss the Hospital de Sant Pau.
I enjoy discovering cities but had never thought about visiting hospitals as part of a tourism agenda. Hospitals seem very functional and efficient and somewhat drab. They also look pretty much alike whether you’re in Denver or Paris or Bangkok. They seem to be built for the benefit of the medical staff rather than the patients.
So I was very surprised to find that the Hospital de Sant Pau contained some of the most beautiful buildings I’ve ever seen. The hospital dates to 1401 but the major complex that we visited consisted of about a dozen buildings constructed between 1901 and 1930. The Catalan architect Lluis Doménech I Montaner designed the entire campus, which today claims to be the largest art nouveau site in Europe. The campus is like a fairy tale – every which way you turn reveals something new and stimulating. (My photo above barely does it justice).
(The art nouveau campus was a working hospital until 2009 when it was replaced by a newer hospital – also an architectural gem – just beside it. The art nouveau campus is now a museum and cultural heritage site).
As I wandered about the campus, I thought if I were sick, this is the kind of place I would want to be. It’s beautiful and inspiring. That led me to a different question: Can the architecture of a hospital affect the health of its patients? The answer seems to be: Yes, it can.
The earliest paper I found on healing and architecture was a 1984 study by Roger Ulrich published in Science magazine. The title summarizes the findings nicely: “View Through a Window May Influence Recovery from Surgery.” Ulrich studied the records of patients who had gall bladder surgery in a Philadelphia hospital between 1972 and 1981.
Ulrich matched patients based on whether they had a view of trees out the window or a view of a brick wall. He studied only those patients who had had surgery between May and October “…because the tress have foliage during those months.” He also matched the pairs based on variables such as age, gender, smoking status, etc. As much as possible, everything was equal except the view.
And the results? Patients “…with the tree view had shorter postoperative hospital stays, had fewer negative evaluative comments from nurses, took fewer moderate and strong analgesic doses, and had slightly lower scores for minor postsurgical complications.”
Ulrich’s study (and others like it) has led to a school of thought called evidence-based design. Amber Bauer, writing in Cancer.Net, notes, “Like its cousin, evidence-based medicine, evidence-based design relies on research and data to create physical spaces that will help achieve the best possible outcome.”
Bauer cites Dr. Ellen Fisher, the Dean of the New York School of Interior Design, “An environment designed using the principles of evidence-based design can improve the patient experience and enable patients to heal faster, and better.” Among other things, Dr. Fisher suggests, “A view to the outdoors and nature is very important to healing.” It’s Ulrich redux.
I’ll write more about evidence-based design and the impact of architecture on healing in the coming weeks. In the meantime, put a vase full of fresh flowers beside your bed. You’ll feel better in the morning.