Building Design

Care in the Community

Text: Ellis Woodman

Duggan Morris’s precisely considered learning centre provides an elegant oasis of openness that links a south London psychiatric facility with its historic urban surroundings

There is a sensational view from the roof terrace of Duggan Morris’s Ortus building: standing halfway up Denmark Hill and elevated by a further four storeys, we look out across the immediate Georgian fabric of Camberwell Grove towards the towers of the City of London, rising on the skyline to the north.

Not the least remarkable achievement of the building is that anyone can walk in off the street and enjoy this panorama without so much as an enquiry from staff. That licence is all the more surprising given Ortus’s location within the Maudsley Hospital, a psychiatric facility which also serves as the largest mental health training centre in the UK. Given the often fragile condition of the patients, the security of buildings on the Maudsley campus is always a pressing consideration.

Offering damning evidence of the NHS’s grimly utilitarian procurement culture, it is hard to see that the architecture of the Maudsley campus can do much to aid patients' recovery. However, Ortus has not been built by the local NHS Foundation Trust but by Maudsley Charity, an autonomous, privately funded body that supports research and education in the field of mental health. Taking its name from the Latin for new beginnings, the building provides a base for the charity’s education activities, which it operates through the social enterprise Maudsley Learning. In the three months since Ortus has opened, these have included training programmes for mental health nurses, seminars on mental health and law and a conference attended by 200 psychologists on new developments in diagnosis.

First and foremost, Ortus has to be judged a triumph of bold and intelligent patronage. For that credit has to go to the charity’s chair Kumar Jacob, and to Ken Cowdery, the former managing director of developer MacDonald Egan, who Kumar enlisted to manage the process of design and construction. In his previous life, Cowdery had worked with Duggan Morris on a number of residential projects and was sufficiently impressed that he had no hesitation in recommending the practice for Ortus. Coming in at a construction cost of £4.65 million, it is the largest building that the young firm has completed to date but the assured result makes clear that Cowdery’s faith was altogether well placed.

The procurement method also represented a calculated risk. In the conviction that it would enhance communication between all parties, the client contracted every consultant and specialist construction firm directly. Again the wisdom of that decision is borne out by the building: finished on time and on budget, it has also been constructed immaculately.

Ortus' site has a distinctly purgatorial aspect: on the edge of the campus, it is bracketed to one side by an NHS-built horror bedecked in graph-paper terracotta tiles and to the other by one of the most appealing Georgian streets in south London. Duggan Morris’s design recognises both conditions. Like its immediate neighbour — and most buildings on the site — Ortus has been conceived as a standalone pavilion. However, its architectural expression takes its cue from the character of the older facades on Camberwell Grove: from their height, from their construction in brick, from the vertical proportion of their windows, and from their broadly equivalent ratio of solid to void. All this has been directed towards a design that has managed to satisfy the anxieties of the local conservation officer while achieving a stringently elemental character that is very much its own.

In the interests of focusing the budget on the quality of the building’s materials and the generosity of its internal spaces, Duggan Morris has kept any inclination towards shape-making in check. Employing a compact plan centred on an internal atrium, Ortus is essentially a freestanding box, complicated only by a half-storey change of level midway between its uphill and downhill ends. Its external treatment is fundamentally common on all four sides. Set within a strict 1,200mm module grid of slender precast-concrete trabeations, storey-high panels of brick and glass alternate around the facades' full extent. This reduced expression has been hard won.

The primary structure is an in-situ concrete frame, the perimeter columns of which are hidden within the depth of the brick panels. These are formed of brick both inside and out: an inner leaf stands on the in-situ slab, and an outer one on the precast frame. The steel-framed windows slot in between the two leaves, their largely recessed frames providing a thermal break. From the outside, the frame is entirely invisible thanks to the decision to bond the glass directly onto its outer face. The effect is spare and precise but juxtaposed by a more freely handled treatment in the form of a graduation of the brick colour up the facades' height. Clay-toned at the base and transitioning to grey at the top, it suggests a gentle dissolve into the sky.

While undoubtedly laconic, these elevations are not without incident. Indeed, in a manner redolent of the adjacent Georgian housing, their essentially serial nature lends the handful of exceptional conditions considerable expressive force. The roof terrace — cut into the building’s volume on its downhill side — represents one such exception. A number of others result from the split section that the architect has introduced to capitalise on the level change across the site. Three storeys are accommodated on the uphill end and four on the lower, generating a disjunction in the grid midway along the side elevations. The level change also registers at the top. Of the split section’s two sides, the downhill one rises half a storey higher but the architect has chosen to maintain a constant roofline by building up the other’s parapet through an extension of the uppermost precast beam.

Forming an entablature-like termination, the gesture subtly aggrandises the end of the building where the entrance is sited. What impresses about these facades particularly is the way their animation derives from considerations of use rather than an anxious impulse towards pattern-making. An extensive collection of study models testifies to the fact that their arrangement was not fixed on quickly. It shows.

The robust handling brought to the exterior is maintained inside with the beautifully finished in-situ frame being exposed throughout. Servicing is slotted between the closely packed fins that form each slab’s soffit and painted in a matching light grey that has also been employed for the furniture. The thermal mass provided by the exposed structure and the stack effect enabled by the central atrium contribute to an environmental strategy that is almost entirely reliant on natural ventilation. The event space on the lowest level is the only one that requires artificial cooling and even here it is only fresh air — rather than chilled — that has to be occasionally pumped in.

The provision of public access on all floors is made possible by the fact that, short of walking off with a chair or table, there is little obvious mischief anyone could cause. There is a ground-floor café and a secure office area nearby but otherwise the interior is composed entirely of multi-functional event spaces. The recent escalation in mobile computer ownership has been a decisive factor. Just a couple of years ago, a room full of eminently pinchable terminals would have been sine qua non. Today, high speed wi-fi and a liberal supply of recharging points is all that is required.

The high level of internal surveillance that the split section facilitates has also served to relax anxieties over security. The open stair that wraps — half a level at a time — around the central atrium plays a particularly important role, its delicately detailed steel balustrade maintaining the greatest possible visual connection between floors. If a distressed individual did make their way into the building intent on harm, their presence could hardly go unnoticed.

It has been a challenge to reconcile this level of openness with the fire regulations but the design ultimately secured consent on the basis of an escape strategy that measured the time it would take delegates to reach the building’s one compartmentalised stair rather than the distance they would have to travel. The larger event spaces can be divided internally to make three rooms but in the event of a fire delegates are instructed to escape from one to the next rather than heading straight into the lobby.

Time and again, this is a building that impresses as much for what you don’t see as for what you do. Even signage is notably thin on the ground. The intuitive circulation obviates the need for any elaborate way-finding system while a couple of large flat-screen monitors should keep at bay the blizzard of encapsulated A4 notices that are usually such a common feature of hospital buildings.

At an all-in cost of £3,000 per sq m, this is hardly a lavish project but it is distinguished by a level of care that is quite alien to the present culture of public health-sector procurement. It has been built with a 100-year lifespan and it is easy to believe that it will achieve that goal much in the shape that we find it today. One can only hope that its qualities will prove less anomalous rather sooner than that.

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