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Palliative Architecture

Sylvie Hagens - maib24 design studio IMPERFECT Health as Urban Common 2014 - KU Leuven, LUCA School of Arts, Brussel

The Architect as the urban (clown) doctor

“The real sick body is the body of architecture. Why? Architects are trying to justify more and more to find a reason to justify a possible role they could play in the contemporary society. And they are doing that looking at the issues that are emerging from the general contemporary debate: sustainability and health are two examples.“ Mirko Zardini (2012)

Fig 1. Imperfect Health, Canadian Center for Architecture (2011)

From Cure to Care It seems like we are in a constant curative state of mind, especially in the urban context the human body seems to be at constant risk. According to Harvey (2010) we now inhabit the “second nature”, an “environment profoundly marked by human presence and, as a result, by creative destruction.” (Zardini, 2012) The second nature is no longer part of the first nature, it is hard or even impossible to find something that has not already been modified by the human hand. The unexpected consequences of these forced modifications are now backfiring at us, reality is becoming more and more artificial every day. The blurred line between healthy and unhealthy has become difficult to define, we are manoeuvring in a constant grey zone. Believing that architecture can provide an answer to the ongoing obsessed queste for a healthier city is naïve and slightly hypocrite. History has showed that it is not correct to put architecture in a curative role, since architecture did not provide answers within the health debate

Fig 3. Paimio Sanitorium, Alvar Aalto, 1933, Finland

Fig 4. Pruitt–Igoe, Minoru Yamasaki, 1956-1972, St. Louis, Missouri

building became an active ingredient of the healing process but as a ‘side effect’ 85% of the TBC patients died. If architecture cannot function as a cure it can also not function as the disease itself. So, for example in the case of the Pruit-Igoe catastrophe (1972) it is not because of the architecture that there are problems, also destroying the buildings will solve nothing, architecture is only one of many factors to be considered. Architecture merely acts like a passive scenographic décor in which we fill in the conditions. It is not because a city has a large park that inhabitants are healthier. It is not because we as architects provide a green façade that the air in general becomes cleaner nor are we actually building a sustainable building. Thinking about “health city” people still immediately associate this with the banal modernistic health idea: fresh air, greenery and light. But how can it be? As architects it is our duty to think beyond this obvious prepossessions. Because in fact “It is not

Fig 2. Cité Radieuse, Le Corbusier 1945-52

whatsoever. This curative architecture concept was largely introduced by Le Corbusier with his ‘toit-jardin’ and after him many architects followed this believe. In 1932 Alvar Aalto built one of the first sanatoria in Finland and referred to it as ‘a medical instrument’, basing himself on the healing ideas of Le Corbusier, the


Le Corbusier who is to blame, but it is Le Corbusier in us who is to blame ” (Vanstiphout, 2001). We can not aspect from architecture to provide an answer to the problems that we have created ourselves as we are keep abusing our planet until today, the condition of the world is getting worse and worse. “Our way of inhabiting the planet has arrived at a point of crisis: we consume too much water, energy, and resources, we pollute and produce too much waste, we use more and more space for our development. The planet is exhausted and no longer has time to regenerate.” (Atelier d’Architecture Autogérée, 2014). We as architects do no longer need to bluff than we can provide an answer to the complex debate of health. We are stuck with the oddments of what modern society has left us with and to be honest it is terrible. If we want to rethink the mess that modernism has left behind we have to readdress the function of health in architecture today, so the city is no longer misused as an antidote for modernism. It is about time that we wake up from the artificial over-

medicalised coma. According to Vanstiphout (2010) “Restoring architecture and urban planning to a position where they can have a real and positive impact on society may even demand destroying of the mythology of the architect as a visionary”. We need to take our responsibility seriously, become more critical and stop pretending to be urban doctors, as we are in fact clown doctors who take upon a palliative instead of curative role. Rather than pretending that architecture has a healing, curative role I state that architecture, especially within the studio ‘debate’, is in all means palliative, in most it has a placebo effect. We have to work with the conditions that we have instead of still trying to fight the aftermath of the nowadays consumption driven economy. Palliative means that architecture is what it is, it is the structure of how we inhabitant the city. It is not improving the actual health in the city, it can merely prolong our death. Palliative treatment does not mean giving up, it can still improve life


Stop pretending to be urban doctors, as we are in fact clown doctors who take upon a palliative instead of a curative role.





in the city and create hope. Architecture provides wonderful possibilities for change, especially in city parts that are in crisis, it becomes an opportunity rather than an absolute answer. Architecture is not conclusive, it is not a certainty and it is not science. Health is science. Instead of architecture providing the cure, architecture’s first aid is to provide care.

Panopticon it is not purely an observation, it is “also a laboratory; it could be used as a machine to carry out experiments, to alter behaviour, to train or correct individuals.” (Foucault, 1975). According to Foucault (1975) the measure to contain a plague functions are similar to the Panopticon model. During a plague it is vital to separate the health and the sick in order to keep control over the disease. This isolation only works against contamination, it is not a cure on its own. There is no progress. No outbreaks. The Panopticon itself has the function of a palliative treatment.

Medicalisation as Justification We need to question the state of health today. Especially in Brussels, since it has the worst quality of air in the whole of Europe, clean air has already become a tourist attraction. Today we are more than ever living in a health driven society, it seems like health has become the norm of everything. We are all expected to act in a certain way and to be in a certain shape to obtain to this health norm. The faith in medication has never been greater. “The world is so medicalised that just the fact of having a medicine is for a lot of people already a hold, almost a kind of consecrated wafer of comfort.” (de Wachter, 2014) There is a constant pressure: somebody guarding over us if we are doing the right things, eating the right food, taking the right medicines. Nobody really knows what is out there, it is unseen, but something is playing with our health. We are living in a Panopticon of health. The Panopticon is a model where the control is not present in a physical way. The behaviour is driven by this nescience, the control by the unseen. The constant pressure of behaving results, according to the model, into ‘normal’ behaviour. The norm becomes an anticipation for something bad to happen, a suspicion of something negative, a timeframe of waiting, a mistrust of someone disrupting the current situation. The outcome is uncertain. The

Why is there this unrealistic queste for health? Health is not only overtaking us but also architecture. We are forced to have a healthy body, compelled to live in a healthy house, to drive a healthy car and even within the urban context this medicalization is present. Parks are referred to as green longs, problem areas as city cancers. Odds are that this ‘healthy’ health bubble will soon implode in our faces. It will not take long before more and more people will get allergic to modern society. The medicalisation has become justification, medical terms are used to frame non-medical problems. When we use a medical term to address an urban problem there is no discussion possible, everybody is convinced that what is said is true. It is the perfect way to avoid a real debate, it is non refutable. If a site is diagnosed with a city cancer, it needs treatment, no questions ask. Commodified Phantom Pain Since the 50’s Brussels is missing a limb: a museum of modern art. The wound is becoming deeper and deeper every year. In the last 60 years the definition of ‘museum was altered partially due to the


commodification of the museum worldwide. Art is being abused in the worst way. Since 2011 the missing limb it is even used as part of a political debate, the wound has started to fester. The SP.A parliament member ‘Yamilla Idrissi’ has started her own political campaign based around the discussion of a new museum of modern art. The MAC, the Museum At the Canal, is already branded with a logo, an interactive website and matching presswork. It is literally being sold as the perfect panacea even before it is built. Idrissi insists that we build the ‘MAC’, a museum that can cure the current urban diseases at the Canal. There is a trust in the museum that is can fix all kinds of social and other problems. The real question than is: can a museum function as an antidote for modern society? Is this a healthy solution? According to Idrissi (2013) the MAC is “a metaphor for the ambitions of our city. It symbolizes the opportunity for federal, Flemish and Brussels politicians to work together, to surpass themselves and make change happen”. The MAC discussion is not about art, about making the hidden collection public, the debate speculates more on lucrative outcomes than on actually showing and preserving the collection. The museum becomes an excuse to do political propaganda.

It is off course not only in Brussels that a museum is used as a weapon to brand a city. As Kenneth Frampton (2005) describes almost every big city is looking for ‘spectacle’. As an example he talks about the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao: “this building may be as a purely architectural presence, it simply cannot be thought of apart from its intended role in promoting the economic revitalization of Bilbao and its magnetic power for tourist money… spectacle is the primary manifestation of the commodification or commercialization of design.” Partially to blame to this commodification is the believe of the curative role of a museum: it creates expectations. The museum is sold as if it comes with a lot of benefits and profits for different partners. But what does the commodification of a museum means today? Art becomes a privatised good, it becomes a commodity, yet it is in all means a common good. The museum becomes a marketing tool, which different parties try to benefit from, a lucrative business. It is not only marginalising the museum as an institute, architecture also becomes a lucrative production tool of economy.

Wim Cuyvers (2007) compares the museum experience of today with going to IKEA, due to the overload and repetition every museum starts to look the same, when you are inside you have no connec10

A museum as an antidote for modernism?

Recently refered to as “Citycancers’ in the media: #1 Ninhoofse Poort #2 Maagdenstraat #3 Beursgebouw #4. Justitiepaleis #5 RAC

The right to the city has been compromised to the right to the city for the ones who own a member card.

tion anymore with the surrounding context. The museum becomes a brand, a selected club who offers member cards to its clients. Cuyvers (2007) also describes the ‘importance’ of the museum café: “There is an entrance to the museum through the museum cafe. To go from the museum to the cafe you need to walk trough an ‘artwork’ made by John Körmeling, that according to their website is also a world record (it is the shortest covered bridge in the world). I cannot understand how an artwork can be a world record. I think world records belong to the world of leisure.” The art collection and the museum are becoming the opposite of a common ground, the public space becomes commodified and thus gentrified, or as Zukin (2010) calls it: ‘pacification by cappuccino’. The public space becomes an attraction and is only accessible for the ones who can afford to be in it. The right to the city has been compromised to the right to the city for the ones who own a member card. As a result the museum becomes less and less a public space. Due to the commodification the public space is over designed, both literally and figuratively, it does not feel anymore like a public space and chances are small people will appropriate it. A side effect of treating the museum as a medicine is that the common ground has shifted from inside the museum to right in front of it. In different cities the museum square, unintentially, becomes a place to repose, express and to have likeminded gatherings, even outside visiting hours, a museum visit is not needed. The ground around the museum has become the new common ground.

Fig 6. Metropolitan museum of Art, New York

Fig 7. MACBA, Barcelona

Fig 8. MAS, Antwerpen


Atelier d’Architecture Autogérée. (2014) R Urban Commons. Available at: (Accessed 15 Mai 2014) Bentham, J. (Ed.) Božovič, M. (1955) The Panopticon Writings. Londen: Verso Cuyvers, W. (2007) Musea voor actuele kunst, van het bordeel via de school naar Ikea. De Witte Raaf, July-August, nr. 128 De formattering van het museum De Wachter, D. (2014) ‘De Bittere Pil’. Interview by Peter Brems, Panorama, television, Canvas, 17 April 2014-05-15 Foucault, M. (1975) Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Vintage Books. Harvey, D (2010) ‘The Enigma of Capital and the Crisis this Time’, American Sociological Association Meetings. Atlanta, August 16th Idrissi, Y. (2013) Neuzen in het MAK. Brussel: Curieus Brussel Saunders, W. S. (2005) Commodification and Spectacle in Architecture: A Harvard Design Magazine Reader. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press Vanstiphout, W. (2011) ‘Historian of the present: Wouter Vanstiphout’. Interviewed by Rory Hyde, Australian Design Review, online, 12 August 2011. Available at: http://www.australiandesignreview. com/features/2313-historian-of-the-present-wouter-vanstiphout Vanstiphout, W. (2010) ‘Maakbaarheid: Reinventing the Urban Project in Rotterdam; in Search of a New Credibility for Architecture and Planning After the Financial Crisis of 2008’, Architecture Biennale Rotterdam (IARB). Rotterdam, 24 September 2009 – 10 January 2010 Available at: http:// maakbaarheid-reinventing-the-urban-project-inrotterdam.pdf Zardini, M. (2012) Imperfect Health: The Medicalisation of Architecture. Zürich: Lars Muller Publication. Zukin, S. (2010) Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places. New York: Oxford University Press

Figure 1. CCA (2011) Installation view with Chicken by Andy Byers. At: en/exhibitions/1538-imperfect-health (Accessed on 15.05.14) Figure 2. Toutaitanous 2 (2009) La Terasse de la Citée Radieuse. At: wiki/Fichier:Marseille_la_terrasse_de_la_citée_ radieuse.jpg (Accessed on 15.05.14) Figure 3. Klein, L. (2011) Paimio Sanitorium by Alvar Aalto. At: blog/wordpress (Accessed on 15.05.14) Figure 4. The Rise and Fall St. Louis’ Notorious Pruitt-Igoe Housing Project (1972) At: (Accessed on 15.05.14) Figure 5. Venturi (1972) I am a monument. At: (Accessed on 15.05.14) Figure 6. PPS (2014) steps at Metropolitan Museum of Art. At: (Accessed on 15.05.14) Figure 7. Spencer, E. (2012) MACBA, a famous skateboard spot in Barcelona. At: http://www. (Accessed on 15.05.14) Figure 8. Image Globe. (2013) Het MAS. At: http:// (Accessed on 15.05.14)


Museumol® The city is a sick body, it is diagnosed with different mutations of cancer and it needs immediate treatment! Only with this treatment the city can transform again from a sick city into a healthy city, a city where people are more fit and are enjoying a richer lifestyle in general. When an urban site is diagnosed with cancer there are different symptoms which can characterize its illness: broken glass, loitering, loners hanging around in the area, abandoned trash, graffiti and overgrown weeds. They all contribute to an unhealthy, unsafe and non-hygienic situation. It is clear that a medicine is a must, it is the only remedy. The Museumol is an element of the treatment plan to operate on city cancers. A museum as an antidote for modernity! It has no guarantees whatsoever but it does assure to be a professional placebo, it provides consolation. The museum will not solve any problems that are expected to be treated, it will change absolutely nothing but it is a placebo medicine, a hold, it provides comfort and trust. The Museumol acts like a palliative décor, the answers are given, but there is no progress only decline. The museum consists of four main ingredients: The copper facade reflects prestige and wealth to the surrounding neighbourhood; it is the ultimate tourist attractor. The open plan assures plenty of clean air and oxygen. The museum café provides an excellent decor for relaxation while nipping the best cappuccino in town. The palmitic acid is a must for city dwellers, it provides an instant tropical flair. It is the ultimate reminder of a carefree island life. The biggest asset, a key component of the Museumol, is the fantastic inner public staircase. Its monumental appearance provides a wonderful décor to take photos and is also coincidentally the shortest route from the museum cafe to the museum shop. There is only one small side effect of the Museumol medicine. The public space of the museum has been commodified. The common ground shifts from inside of the museum to right in front of it: the museum square. But this side effect is actually a bonus! The public space of the museum turns into a safe heaven which only elite members can acces, the guards provide 99,9% security and to top it off the museum café serves great cappuccino. WHAT MORE DO YOU WANT?

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Broken windows, shattered glass

Unsafe & non hygenic conditions: abondoned trash, grafitti

Overgrown weeds




STEP 2. usAGE, one museum per city cancer:

STEP 3. Check for the four active ingredients:


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Open Plan

Palliative Architecture  

The Architect as the Urban (Clown) Doctor