Emily Wheater // It was a dark, and extremely wet London evening, when I sought shelter in the Wellcome Collection in London a few weeks ago. Like many of Britain’s museums, it is free to enter (though you are free to spend money in the bookshop), and it is dry (despite the sodden Britons). And so it was, with a feeling of gratitude, certainly towards this building, and with warming fingers and toes, that I entered the (free) exhibition: ‘Living with Buildings’.

An 1813 drawing of the slum Jacob’s Island – later described by Charles Dickens in Oliver Twist. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

By showcasing the immense social policy efforts of the 19th and 20th centuries, the exhibition sets out to explore the relationship between our health and the design of the buildings in which we reside and receive care. It opens with Dickensian London – and squalor. Jacob’s Island – a riverside slum sliding into the Thames – represented conditions so appalling that many of the country’s great and good firmly believed it in the realm of fiction, including the shipping tycoon Charles Booth. He created ‘poverty maps’ of London that are on display, and in their creation convinced himself and many others, that far from being fictional, the problem was more extensive than even fiction had allowed for. Following these revelations come the garden cities Bourneville and Saltaire, and even the never realised ‘Wellcomeville’.  Established by social-minded whiskered industrialists these fusions of the urban and the rural were conceived to provide the opportunities and livelihood that could be found in the industrialised cities and also access to pastoral pastimes and environments.

The story moves us on to the post-World-War-2 period: the demolition of the bombed-out slums of East London and the subsequent relocation of the inhabitants into the utopian experiment tower blocks epitomised by Ernö Goldfinger’s Balfron Tower. What follows is a story of high-rise, disillusionment, and the ultimate fall of a style of social housing that, post-Blitz, was momentarily a beacon of modernity, hygiene and welfare. The fall is literal, illustrated by Rachel Whiteread’s series of photographs of the demolition of Hackney’s Clapton Park Estate tower blocks. Spectators view the process from a small boat in the middle of the river, or from the park. The demolitions, for all their visual impact, read bathetic rather than tragic.

The highlight of the show is the exploration of the Paimio Sanatorium in Finland. Its architect, Alvar Aalto, designed with the belief that the entire building, down to every last detail could and should be recruited in the battle against Mycobacterium tuberculosis. For a start, the whole building was designed with no unnecessary surfaces or ornamentation so that it was easier to keep clean. A poster demonstrates how the 45 degree angle of the basins in patients’ rooms produces minimal splashing and noise (so as not to disturb your roommate). Full length windows maximise natural light, chairs were designed to be at the perfect angle for breathing while patients imbibed the no doubt therapeutic Finnish forest view, and the carefully considered use of colour speaks of a design process that is simultaneously experimental and imbued with sympathy and consideration for the patient.

As an exhibition, Living with Buildings is quite miscellaneous. The focus shifts to a new time, a new place, a new type of building; the narrative thread wears thin in these transitions. There are reflections on the design of buildings that are expressly for care-giving, how our domestic environments shape our health and identities, as well as the impact of urban planning and safety. Hotchpotch and spread thin though it may be, buildings are positioned here as benign caregivers and medical tools in their own right, as well as places of refuge. Buildings poorly designed and in disrepair are unsafe, threaten health, and become almost pathogenic in themselves.

The clock strikes 6 pm, the gallery empties, and we come full circle, preparing ourselves to re-join the spitting rain outside. Jacob’s Island comes back into view as we are about to leave. But before we do, there is one last thing. The shadow that falls across the whole exhibition: Grenfell Tower. The images displayed are not those of the charred and blackened tower standing today, but before – while there was still something that could have been done. A document details the complaints of the Grenfell Action Group. Residents write of their belief that their concerns, about the quality of workmanship and the choice of cheap materials used in refurbishment, would fall on deaf ears until there was a serious catastrophe. They had no doubt that such an event would happen. At the end of this exhibition, with Jacob’s Island on one side, and Grenfell Tower on the other, I see the cautionary tale that unites them. The great and the good of the 19th Century believed that Jacob’s Island belonged in fiction. For how much longer will those of today make the mistake of believing it to belong in the past?

‘Living with Buildings’ (4th October 2018 to 3rd March 2019) is currently on at the Wellcome Collection, 183 Euston Road, London.

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