Think of a hospital and you’ll probably find your mind working in institutional off-white with splashes of surgical blue or green. At least this has been my experience of hospitals in the UK.
The inside of Herlev Hospital in Copenhagen, Denmark was a real surprise.
This winter, on a sunny morning of bucket freezing cold, I stepped inside Herlev Hospital for the first time. We had entered via the rotating door at the entrance which had scooped us inside and left us blinking in the wide openness of the main reception area.
As the chill retreated the impact hit. I felt as though my senses had been drenched in rainbow paint and then left to calm down in the warmth.
In Herlev there was no institutional grey gloom but vibrant waves of colour and light on every corner. The dull, tight grip of anxiety that hospitals normally triggered in me scattered into confetti.
There were wheelchairs; there were doctors; there were the sick and the recovering … but there was also this playful, positive sense of welcome. And it was bright. Was this really a hospital?
Until that Monday I had thought I was moderately familiar with Danish design. I’d met the mobiles, the furniture, the wood; I had used Copenhagen airport and the city’s public transport systems; I’d stayed in a hotel in Copenhagen; I had seen the palaces and I’d watched Borgen … but I had never seen anything like Herlev Hospital.
That ‘enlightenment’ in the main foyer of the hospital led to an eyes-wide open visit and later triggered some research.
Hervlev Hospital was opened in 1976 and its interior decoration was largely the work of painter Poul Gernes. A brief enquiry into the artist’s life and his creations has convinced me that on Monday, 11 March 2013 I did not just walk into another medical institution – I had walked into a work of art.
Gernes worked on the Herlev Hospital project from 1968 to 1976 and he poured into it his belief that art should be for the sake of society – to stimulate and encourage.
Gernes wanted art to be in the public domain. He had faith in the pleasure of colour and the impact of simple symbols. He wanted their power to be available to all and not just confined to canvas and locked away in museums or galleries.
I did not visit any of the wards at Herlev Hospital that day but I understand they too are striking. Each ward is painted according to where it is in the hospital. Blues and greens are on the walls of the wards facing north; orange and reds for the rooms facing south; yellow for those looking east; and peach and apricot for those facing west. In each room there is one white wall behind the patient to keep the doctor’s job as focused as possible.
It is not just the walls that are painted. Throughout the hospital the tiny details, the fixtures and fittings, have been painted with purpose – to fit the artistic whole.
Denmark is in the process of streamlining its national medical provision and Herlev Hospital is due for expansion. It seems, from what I’ve been able to find out, that much thought has again been given to the mental well-being of patients and staff.
I do not know whether the impact of Gernes’ work on ‘well-being’ and ‘morale’ has ever been statistically proven however I do know that Herlev Hospital felt alive that Monday. It had bounce and balance and it made us smile.