The Embodiment of Health in Architecture: Air and Light Part 1

During my trip, I visited a few Functionalist buildings in the Netherlands and in Finland. Two of them are sanatoriums: Zonnestraal, also known as the Sun Beam Estate designed by Jan Duiker, and Paimio by Alvar Aalto. While most sanatoriums have been destroyed today, these two are, quite luckily, have been under ongoing preservations and restorations. I became interested on the sanatoriums after taking Stanford Anderson’s class: Research Program in Modern Architecture, back in 2011 at MIT. I’d like to share a couple things I learnt from my visits and readings of these two buildings over my next two posts here.

During the 1900s, TB became a disease that was widespread across the world, and it set up a new type of building typology: the sanatorium, where the agency of light and air were believed to be able to help the bodies to become healthy again. In 1940s, medication to cure TB, was first discovered, and most sanatoriums were closed down, or repurposed into other buildings, e.g. In Parnu, Estonia, and Davos, Swiss, they were converted into hotels. Therefore, the architecture of sanatoriums seemed to be geared towards the creation of separation between the contaminated and the clean environments. These are embodied in the figuration of the sanatorium complex, as well as in the details of the buildings’ envelope as well as furniture in their interior space.

Treatment of TB in the 1920s with respiratory analysis device. This was a photo taken at Zonnestraal. Note: This could easily be a scene from a sci-fi movie.

Treatment of TB in the 1920s with respiratory analysis device. This was a photo taken at Zonnestraal. Note: This could easily be a scene from a sci-fi movie.

Situated in the forest area of Hilversum, Zonnestraal just one hour outside Amsterdam by train. The sanatorium here was setup by the Dutch Diamond Workers’ Union, for its diamond cutters and it was partially built in the 1930s. It was told that Aalto visited this building, while he himself was going to work on the Paimio Sanatorium, and thus, despite their not being in proximity, the two have been somehow closely related. This complex was completed around 1928 – 1931 and the buildings were constructed using a reinforced concrete technology, previously developed for military purpose. Duiker’s masterplan shows the complex as series of fingers / wings – all are configured so that they receive good amount of light. However, due to lack of funding, this complex is only partially completed – there were two more unrealized patients wings.

Central building in the middle, with two patients wings -- both oriented 45 degrees. The original proposal had two more wings to be built.

Central building in the middle, with two patients wings — both oriented 45 degrees. The original proposal had two more wings to be built.

These are a couple of notes I took from my visit and the tour (mainly in Dutch) of the building:

1. The creation of spaces with different temperature, adjusted to patients’ body temperatures. This was both achieved passively and actively.

– Passively: Utilising the principle from the glass house typology: maximizing the area of glazing on the building envelope — concrete structure is set-back to allow free-standing envelope.
– Actively: Using infrastructural device that include underfloor heating, vertical pipes meandering on structural columns– expression of functions and heat flow, display of boiler system – technology as messiah / hope in visual celebration of infrastructure.
Note the placement of radiator pipes behind the single glazed curtain wall, as well as on the columns.

Note the placement of radiator pipes behind the single glazed curtain wall, as well as on the columns.

The central Air Exchange Unit is embedded within the hollow wall with air inlets and outlets at different heights: 2000 mm and 3000 mm above the ground level -- an acknowledgement of the different strata of air temperature within the space.

The central Air Exchange Unit is embedded within the hollow wall with air inlets and outlets at different heights: 2000 mm and 3000 mm above the ground level — an acknowledgement of the different strata of air temperature within the space.

2. Different degrees of building enclosures,  with different light condition and outdoor exposure, in the form of treatment pavilions or chambers:

– The main patients block are arranged in linear single-loaded corridor configurations with one side facing the balcony.
– Mini wooden pavilions during the overcrowding seasons, or for poorer patients. This is not different to wooden cabin or mini hut, with ventilation shaft under the roof, and horizontal window wrapping around the three sides of the cabin. It was believed, that this was quite an efficient way for patients to be exposed to the freshest air possible — think about how cold this was in the winter (even after 5 layers of blanket).
– Panopticon treatment facility. Not sure, why, but this is located at a distance from the main complex. Perhaps, to even separate the patients taken care of here from the regular group, i.e. ICU building.

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One of the wooden cabins outside the main wings.

One of the wooden cabins outside the main wings.

The southern side of one of the wings, with balcony spaces for sunbathing and fresh air exposure.

The southern side of one of the wings, with balcony spaces for sunbathing and fresh air exposure.

The panopticon building, in a form of extruded octagonal topped with circular roof slab. The triangular patient rooms are generously lit from outside, and central communal space that receives light from a round piece of glass in the middle.

The panopticon building, in a form of extruded octagonal topped with circular roof slab. The triangular patient rooms are generously lit from outside, and central communal space that receives light from a round piece of glass in the middle.

3. Spaces for mental and physical exercises for the bodies in the form of workshops. Most patients spent one to two years working to develop their practical skills, while being away at the sanatorium, so they could go back employed once deemed fit to rejoin the society. In a way, this must had been a form of a momentarily escape from the reality, i.e. the illness, itself.

The workshop spaces as it was back then during the sanatorium active years. Most have been converted into gyms, and research centres.

The workshop spaces as it was back then during the sanatorium active years. Most have been converted into gyms, and research centres.

As I ponder on the architecture of sanatorium, I wonder if architects also have to understand spaces in terms of environments, i.e. its temperature, airflow, and in terms of energy. After all, we don’t always make pavilions or installations that are mostly not inhabited. Next one: Aalto’s Paimio!

P.S. Our tour guide, Jan Schniefer, was apparently born in the very sanatorium, where his dad was a patient. He’s been doing a tour around the complex since 1987 every last Sunday of the month. I’m very glad that he’s been faithful in doing that. Thank you Jan! Well, I hope this has been somewhat an interesting very short article on the sanatorium.

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