Hospital design under microscope

The north of Dunedin’s CBD is dominated by two undistinguished, grey monoliths, otherwise known as Dunedin Hospital.

While these stolid, architecturally unspectacular structures have provided valued healthcare for hundreds of thousands of southerners, they have also offered little of worth to the Dunedin cityscape.

While they may have been architecturally functional, these aesthetically unpleasing edifices no longer have practicality going for them; leaks, asbestos and a lack of flexibility mean they no longer meet the needs of modern medicine.

Happily, help is on the way.

The Government has approved $1billion-plus to build a new Dunedin Hospital, and months of planning work reached a landmark moment before Christmas with the announcement Christchurch firm Warren and Mahoney had been awarded the major design contract.

While the firm will be designing a hospital, the biggest such construction project in New Zealand history, this enterprise has greater significance for the look and feel of Dunedin.

The current hospital is some distance from the historic architecture Dunedin is famed for; the new hospital will loom above two category one and five category two historic buildings.

With the proposed heights of the two main buildings, the new Dunedin Hospital will be the dominant central city structure for decades to come.

The task facing Warren and Mahoney and its partners in the contract, international health planning and architecture firm HDR and Dunedin architects McCoy Wixon, is to create a design which meets both the needs of clinicians to provide the best care possible for their community, and which is also a point of pride for that community.

The Government has been astute in selecting a tender which involved a Dunedin firm; McCoy Wixon’s involvement will hopefully be an affirmative one which ensures the integrity of the city’s historic precinct is maintained.

Previously mooted designs, such as one which would have left the tourist mecca that is Dunedin Railway Station in shade, will hopefully be avoided with the active involvement of local architects who not only understand the city but also, through their long relationship with Mercy, know how to build hospital facilities.

Warren and Mahoney also has a track record in building hospitals, most recently the Canterbury DHB’s acute services building — an efficient space which sits nicely against the adjacent Hagley Park and is built to maximise views and natural light within.

Warren and Mahoney attempted something similar when it designed the current Dunedin Hospital’s new critical care unit, and will hopefully follow that path in the new build, where it has the advantage of a clean slate rather than adapting an existing floor plan.

Crucially for a facility which will also be a teaching hospital, Warren and Mahoney has a long-standing relationship with the University of Otago, which includes a redevelopment of its medical school buildings in Christchurch.

A much-cited reason for the hospital redevelopment being positioned in the central city is so that its links with the School of Medicine are maintained; draft plans include an ‘‘interprofessional learning centre, and one of the many challenges of the project will be to integrate that building with the hospital and also make it feel connected to the school.

Public meetings about the hospital have seen consistent calls for the development to have plenty of green spaces, something the current site sorely lacks.

Creating those things may be a challenge in a concrete jungle on a former factory site, but recent Warren and Mahoney designs include the use of ‘‘green walls’’ — nature’s place in the design may be vertical rather than horizontal.

Warren and Mahoney has said all the right things following the announcement it had won the contract, speaking of the gravity of the task and the honour of taking on an incredible opportunity for the people of Otago and Southland.

Pride in winning the contract is all well and good, now Warren and Mahoney’s design will face great scrutiny from a city deeply concerned what its new hospital will look like.

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