Embodiment of Health in Architecture: Air and Light 2

On my last post, I mentioned that I visited two sanatoriums during my summer travel, and did a brief article on Zonnestraal Sanatorium, Netherlands. The second one I’m going to share about is the Paimio Sanatorium by Alvar Aalto. During the peak of the TB catastrophe, around one-third of the Tuberculosis patients in Finland passed away, and thus the government took initiatives of building a few sanatoriums on designated forest areas. Paimio Sanatorium is located halfway between Helsinki and Turku (the old Finnish Capital). The complex is situated inside a pine forest. When I visited the site, the ground was very soft and wet – probably because of the earlier rain, and it was quite refreshing to be walking around the area.

Amidst the pine trees, one can clearly see Aalto’s different massing strategy than that of Zonnestraal, which he visited prior to constructing Paimio. If Zonnestraal were horizontally arranged as a complex of disconnected pavilions (2 floors), Paimio were composed of five linear and slim wings (up to 7 floors) that are loosely interconnected. What struck me was that the site was chosen because the Finnish doctors believed that the pine forest was a perfect source of fresh oxygen, especially under the heat of the sun, when the trees give out its particular smell, believed to be good for respiratory of the patients. I don’t know if scientifically this had any agency on the recovery of the patients, but Aalto did take this into account by placing balconies on seven levels, with the uppermost level sunbathing deck with a view towards Turku, the port city. On this level, there were, and still are an array of mini pine trees. Yes, pine bonsai besides the patients, who spent hours on the reclining chairs.

The main patients' wing with the open-air balcony under the roof. The smaller balconies are now enclosed by the glazing stripes on the six other levels.

The main patients’ wing with the open-air balcony under the roof. The smaller balconies are now enclosed by the glazing stripes on the six other levels.

The open-air balcony with bonsai pine trees located in-between the spots where the patients bed were located.

The open-air balcony with bonsai pine trees located in-between the spots where the patients bed were located.

Of particular interests to me are Aalto’s intent to design the building and its elements as a holistic edifice for healing the sick bodies:

1. Envelope:

-The building, approximately 30 feet width, is organised around a single-loaded corridor and the horizontal windows stripes on both sides of the long elevations allow for cross ventilations to occur.

-In the canteen and the library, for example, Aalto introduced the concept of double glazing with cavity, that allows tight control of dust and pollens from the environment outside — specific window mechanisms, with gears and pulley system, were expressed around these common spaces.

-The spherical lighting fixtures were designed so that they were made of two half spheres: one translucent (at the bottom so that there’s no direct illumination coming) and one transparent (the two parts was handy for the hygiene maintenance of the bulbs too). Half a sphere ceiling nooks were introduced to enhance the intent for creating direct light.

The parts-lamp next to the blue plates that once held the ceiling-mounted heating coils.

The parts-lamp next to the blue plates that once held the ceiling-mounted heating coils.

Two layers of single glazing that can be inter-dependently operated using a mechanism system.

Two layers of single glazing that can be inter-dependently operated using a mechanism system.

2. Infrastructure:

-Aalto experimented with the placement of the heater on the ceiling, in order to direct the heat towards the patients lying on the beds. In terms of performance, similar to his famous sketches of the intended light reflections in Viipuri Library, this idea did not actually work, but Aalto’s idea on the placement of this infrastructure within the context of a hospital was quite unique.

-Another quirky idea Aalto realised, as well, was the fireplace with horizontal funnels inside the nicely designed chapel. The top of this was designed flat, with the exhaust going horizontal, so that the patients could also use it as a furniture piece. Nowadays, this is not in use, and they placed one of the surviving Paimio chairs, instead.

Interior of the chapel on third floor. This room was created as many of the patients died on site. The horizontal fireplace is now utilised to showcase the surviving Paimio chair.

Interior of the chapel on third floor. This room was created as many of the patients died on site. The horizontal fireplace is now utilised to showcase the surviving Paimio chair. Note the placement of an enclosed plant with access to fresh air outside as well as circulated air inside at the same time.

3. Furnitures:

-The ceramic washing basins were designed with certain curves that will let the water from the taps to bounce off it smoothly. Later on, Aalto also installed one of these basins in his own house in Helsinki.

-The patients chairs were supposedly designed to help their lungs to open more when breathing the fresh air. It has a specific curve that is made out of bent plywood sheets, which suspends bodies on the air — a hybrid between normal and lazy chairs.

Basins inside the patients' room were designed so that the water drops silently on the gentle curve. The translucent mini basin in the middle was used to collect patients' spits.

Basins inside the patients’ room were designed so that the water drops silently on the gentle curve. The translucent mini basin in the middle was used to collect patients’ spits.

The wardrobe was designed so that no dust could be collected by the door.

The wardrobe was designed so that no dust could be collected by the door.

Having visited the two sanatoriums made me think that architecture is often understood tectonically and spatially, but less in terms of its social and scientific embodiment. Aalto’s and Duiker’s hospitals were quite radical, and I’m wondering if we would see yet the contemporary form of this instrumental architecture, especially in places like Asian upcoming megacities, where industrial revolution is really just about starting and yet to reach its peak day. Will certain shape and figuration allow for better environments for us, physically? The increasingly deteriorated environment we live in, may have already suggest that we all will live parasitically – bodily exist hand in hand with pollutants. Simply put: What will the relationships between architecture and human body like in the future?

P.S. While still in the process of getting an approval as a UNESCO site, the near future will see Paimio sanatorium complex re-purposed as a children hospital. Meanwhile, Zonnestraal will continue its process of restoration and serving as a care and research centres in the Netherlands.

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