Naas General Hospital
Naas, Co Kildare
1985 – 1989 and 1997 – 2003
Photographs copyright Gerry O’Leary Photography, courtesy of the architects
When I was young, I remember being struck by the widespread fear that elderly neighbours shared about ever having to go to hospital. They would rather be ill at home than cross that particular threshold. “Once you go in, you rarely come out,” was the firm and fixed opinion of a generation that had grown up in the shadow of the memory of 19th-century workhouses and the traumatic mid-century terror of tuberculosis.
Naas General Hospital occupies a former workhouse site, fortunately wooded and bordering a pleasant south-facing public park with a large pond. The workhouse was built between 1838 and 1842, and a fever hospital (replaced by Vincent Kelly in 1938) was added in the following year. In 1922, the former workhouse became a district hospital. Designated a county hospital in 1960, following the closure of Kildare Hospital and with the addition of a surgical department, it continued to operate out of the original workhouse buildings throughout the 20th century.
A & D Wejchert was commissioned in 1985 to prepare a development control plan for its phased redevelopment into a 19,000sqm, 209-bed acute hospital. The first phase – the psychiatric department – completed in 1989, established an architectural language that would be sustained throughout the later stages. More than three decades later, Wejchert Architects remain engaged in ongoing developments there. Not for nothing are hospitals regarded as among the largest and most complex buildings of modern society
The two architects who shaped Naas General Hospital are no longer with us but, thankfully, Danuta Kornaus-Wejchert and Martin Carey left us a written account of their intentions. In a well-published essay – ‘Designing for Health’ – Danuta set out their philosophy: “The demand on hospital functionality has been reinforced by the provision of free-flow services, with artificial light and ventilation … [This] produces an image of a high-tech laboratory, where sick patients could become even more worried and frightened.
“Without denying the beneficial aspects of progress in medicine and treatment methods … we were determined in our design not to lose sight of the influence of the environment on patients, medical staff and visitors. The concept of the ‘healing environment’ is rooted in long-standing traditions of complementary medicine and holistic healing. Nature, fresh air and tranquillity play an important role in the design of healing environments. There is clinical evidence that views of nature, whether it is an enclosed courtyard or an internal garden, are beneficial to people’s health.
“Somewhere in this subject area there is also a question of the external image of hospital buildings. For a patient it is bad enough to be ill, but to be confronted with an image of a regimented, frightening and inhumane monolith will only exacerbate the situation. When conceiving Naas General Hospital, we decided to steer the design towards the familiar image of a small Irish town. The buildings, with their gable walls, steeply pitched fibre-cement slate roofs and variously coloured Monocouche renders, create the very specific character which integrates well into this image.”
Professor Cathal O’Neill has observed that after decades of phased development, “The overall effect is that of a staggered streetscape in a small town, integrated with the wider community.” A ‘hospital street’ runs as an organising spine through the complex on three levels, segregating services, visitors and ambulant patients, and trolleys. In-patient departments overlook the park, while accident and emergency, out-patient departments and administration face north, on the more accessible, town side of the ‘hospital street’.
The strategy of treating the hospital as a town or village, rather than a monolithic building, has also proved successful in facilitating coherent growth over several decades, through phased development and inevitable and unpredictable changes in the brief. The planning module throughout is 7.5m, which is also the structural grid, and this is expressed externally as a gable wall. Each department is rendered as a series of gables, which can be either uniform or of varying height, depending on functional requirements. Lift cores and water tanks are expressed as towers.
“We didn’t want a bedded gable verge,” says Keith Meghen, a director at Wejchert Architects, who joined the project team in the mid-1990s. “We wanted a very sharp shadow, a crisp edge. We built different samples with the contractor and eventually chose a detail with an aluminium verge trim. This was a new thing for Tegral, too, at the time. That’s what gives it a modern, sharp look. We just rendered up behind the projecting aluminium trim.”
The cheery, relaxed and good-humoured domestic appearance of Naas General Hospital, particularly when viewed from across the park – like some wee Hanseatic ensemble, transported from the Baltic – owes much to the architectural mood of the 1980s, when Postmodernism was in full flow. Now, as that short-lived but liberating moment in architecture receives renewed critical attention worldwide and the first exponents are added to the list of protected structures in the UK, it is worth highlighting one of the largest and more memorable examples of the style in Ireland.