Royal London Hospital: Playspace by Cottrell & Vermeulen 13.05.13

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Twoo the owl and Eddie the friendly tiger live in the £1.1bn Royal London Hospital, which looms over Whitechapel. Their home is not a happy one. The HOK-designed building is grim, PFI-funded functionalism at its most depressing. But, on the children's ward on the seventh floor, architect Cottrell & Vermeulen, artist Morag Myerscough and Vital Arts have transformed a perfunctory atrium into a space where the imagination can run riot.

"It's not about art as a sticking plaster," says Anne Mullins, director of Vital Arts, the charitable arts organisation of Barts Health NHS Trust. "This kind of space is rare [in a project like this]. The cost doesn't equate to the value it provides. Keeping space available for creative purposes is hard." Cottrell and Vermuelen designed two spaces to serve the children's ward: one in the atrium and one on a roof terrace. Both contain larger-than-life installations that play with scale, colour and form, providing a welcome and essential change from the relentless monotony of the wards.

The playspace takes the form of an oversized living room, the architects worked closely with Myerscough to create a giant television, lamp, chair and globe that divide the atrium and designate different activity areas in the space. The chair, on which Twoo is perched, is a story-telling space; the lamp projects a turntable below it that plays pop songs and games designed by interaction designer Chris O'Shea. Similarly, the TV plays interactive games, again designed by O'Shea, that bring Twoo, Eddie and their friends from Cozy Wood to life. "Our idea was to have this outsized space exploded in scale," architect Richard Cottrell says. "Is it The Borrowers? Alice in Wonderland? Where the Wild Things Are? The references are all there." Presiding over the whole experience is the giant figure of Eddie, resting against a pillar in front of the TV.

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On the balcony is a roof garden with a giant teepee, a shingle-clad den and a lattice canopy that will grow over with vines. "We are trying to make a material change – this building is so hard and faceless," Cottrell says. "We are trying to make something as natural as we could." Here, the glass balustrades are masked with wicker fencing and planters provide a semblance of something natural in a manmade desert.

Fundraising and donations provided £1m for the scheme. This project is set dressing – in no way does the design alter the fabric of the HOK building, and it was retrofitted in the existing spaces. Each piece was fabricated off site, dismantled and carried to the floor using the lift and reassembled. This independence of the space is both physical and metaphorical; Cottrell & Vermeulen, Myerscough and Vital Arts have brought energy and character to a charmless lump of a building, serving a purpose far more valuable than any balance sheet or cost strategy could ever show.



Tom Cronin



Owen Pritchard

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This building is so hard and faceless. We are trying to make something as natural as we could

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