Louis Mayes reflects on how sensitive design respects the dignity of the occupants at an Ostend care home, designed by Bovenbouw
In designing a care home, whose residents rarely leave the building and one third of whom pass away each year, how do you create a place that responds to individual needs yet doesn’t feel institutional? This is the question that Bovenbouw Architectuur faced in designing Drie Platanen on the outskirts of the Belgian coastal town of Ostend.“The surrounding context is so diverse, what do you go with?”, asks principal Dirk Somers. Materially, the care home stands apart from its neighbours, but formally, the undulating facade reconciles the differing street setbacks. It also reconnects the street with the parkland behind by allowing Ostend’s new ‘Green Ribbon’ cycle route to cut directly through its courtyard. “In a way the park is fundamental to the design in a scenographic manner”, explains Somers, who describes this meeting of public and private areas as a ‘confrontation of flows’.
Yet these formal decisions are not only spatially informed. Defined as ‘gestures’ by Somers, these moments are a manifestation of the client’s principles. The undulating facade not only negotiates the staggered street, but allows the inhabitants to overlook the bus stop below and along the road. The public route cutting through the courtyard allows a break in the repetitive urban grain, yet also provides constant activity to engage the inhabitants. This multiplicity of functions suggests that a strong client-architect relationship was key to the project – and indeed Somers bemoans the negative effect ‘middlemen’ can have on such projects in other European countries.
Run by VZW Sint Monica, a Flemish not-for-profit organisation, Drie Platanen consists of three residential floors with 96 fully-supported homes and six short-term apartments, raised above a ground-floor plinth of public and common areas as well as five independent flats. Both client and designer have a mutual understanding of one another’s roles: “Architecture has a limited reach, and we contributed where we could”, says project architect Wim Boesten. “The client helped make both ‘soft’ choices – such as involving the cycle path – as well as pragmatic decisions regarding the layout and programme.” As we walk along the upper ambulatory, Axel Daenekindt, general manager of the care home, appreciates the designer’s role in the project: “the principles are our ideas, but the architect has to show the possibilities”.
Somers describes the concept as “a series of domestic movements along a loop”, but the loop is a response to the needs of the end-users: dementia sufferers can sometimes feel trapped, and so a continuous ambulatory around the courtyard provides a route with no dead ends. “I like the idea that a plan
can grow out of an ambition rather than a schematic”, says Somers. Reflecting this, the ambulatory overlooks the courtyard and public route, allowing occupants to observe the goings-on downstairs. Yet the plan also meets logistical requirements – 32 rooms are the most that one night nurse can monitor on a single floor. “It’s a very rational brief, but that rationality is quite well hidden in the plan”, says Somers. Each residential floor also has its own social areas for eating and classes. These orbicular spaces are carved out of an otherwise repetitive plan, juxtaposing with the ambulatory and occupants’ rectangular rooms. They vary in size, with more intimate areas that overlook outdoor public areas.
“There are few other building types where the resident stays in the same building for so much of the time, so it is our responsibility to make it as rich and diverse as possible”, reasons Boesten, and with this thought in mind the focus turned to the interior. “We tried to include a variety of ‘moments’, and together these shaped an idea – it’s about balancing consistency and diversity”, suggests Somers, referencing the sober facade of Gunnar Asplund’s Villa Snellman, which obscures particular ‘moments’ within its plan. In a similar manner the corridors of Drie Platanen taper and kink unexpectedly, giving the impression of different routes along the ambulatory.
The richness manifests itself in the colours and textures that are used to differentiate between living and social spaces, creating a hierarchy of passive thresholds: felt lines the social spaces; full-height doors and strips of colour break up the length of the corridors, and dark colours obscure entrances to service areas and circulation cores (to deter access).
On the ground floor, the remaining functions of the care home (an “accumulation of spaces”) are split into two, with a kitchen, a medical centre and public congregation area set around the main courtyard. A chapel, a series of treatment rooms and a public cafe are clustered around a second, smaller garden. An oval entrance joins the two. This confluence of different functions allowed Bovenbouw to explore a more discursive and referential approach, a microcosm of urban form that partly references Soane’s Bank of England and Piranesi’s Campo Marzio plan.
Following on from the idea of the public route passing through the courtyard, both the cafe and medical centre are open to passers-by, with the aim of removing barriers between the residents and the public. Full-height windows open onto the cafe, and also the kitchen and specialist treatment areas. Bovenbouw realised that these mundane daily routines and moments of arrival and departure can be celebrated as events that can be observed by the residents. Through this balance of discursive and programmatic design at Drie Platanen, Bovenbouw is challenging conventions in how care homes treat their residents.
The building developed from a prescriptive brief set by an experienced client, after which the designs were tempered with ideas about ‘diversity of appearance’ and ‘referential thinking’. Similar approaches have typically produced a series of fragmented spaces, yet through a diverse palette of materials and astute observations about the routines of the residents, a residential scale has been achieved in a far more convincing manner than in other recent care home projects.
Daenekindt jokes that you can “feel the architect” when walking around the building – and perhaps only artistic licence can justify the oval fanlights above the doors or the yellow-painted curtain rails in the bedrooms. Yet in a project where the form of the design appears to so accurately reflect the needs of the end user, it is clear that Bovenbouw’s contribution has been integral to the success of Drie Platanen. The diversity and richness of experiences that you encounter, however, arise from the mutual understanding between client and designer, and the resulting direct manifestation of the client’s principles – something that we could learn from on this side of the Channel.