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Natural Wonder

Can nature really heal? Looking back over an illustrious career, multi-disciplinary artist Donald Urquhart champions the therapeutic benefits of landscape and contact with the natural world in a study of his evolving endeavours in the field of Biophilic Design.
words – donald urquhart
location – edinburgh, scotland

Artist Donald Urquhart’s multi-disciplinary practice has consistently looked to landscape and the natural world through the prisms of site-specific public projects, gallery exhibitions and healthcare projects. Based in Edinburgh, Urquhart has collaborated with several of the top architectural practices in Scotland. He was one of the creative team who collaborated with Sutherland Hussey Architects on the built artwork ‘An Turas,’ on the Hebridean island of Tiree, which won the RIAS Best Building in Scotland Award and was shortlisted for the RIBA Stirling Prize in 2005.

Alongside Will Levi Marshall, Urquhart co-authored and implemented the ‘Points of View’ arts strategy for Woodland View Community Hospital in Irvine, on Scotland’s Ayrshire coast. The strategy was developed throughout the design process of the new hospital, to create a series of artworks and projects which not only enhanced the built environment but were aimed at adding to the therapeutic value of the space. The extensive artworks were cited when Woodland View was awarded the ‘Best Mental Health Design’ category at the European Healthcare Design [EHD] Awards 2017.

In co-authoring the ‘Points of View’ strategy, Urquhart drew on his wide experience of working in healthcare contexts – work which has ranged from creating site-specific artworks to designing individual spaces. Urquhart designed Scotland’s first inter-denominational Sanctuary space for Edinburgh’s new Royal Infirmary, which won the Best Building for Public Use in 2005 at the Scottish Design Awards. Sanctuaries are provided in all major NHS build projects, with the remit that they should be interdenominational and be for people ‘of all faiths and none.’ Urquhart has subsequently designed Sanctuary spaces at Stobhill Hospital in Glasgow, The University of Edinburgh and Woodland View itself. Central to each is a simple design principle, which is paradoxical: to make the space simultaneously solid and light. The use of light can make a space uplifting and aspirational whilst the solidity of design allows people to feel safe, as if they are held by the space.

“I carry a lot of the ethos and aesthetic of my gallery work into these spaces, referencing our relationship with the natural world in a simple understated way; making the spaces redolent of the landscape, familiar to the users. I never think of these projects as purely interior design, but rather as three-dimensional artworks. Substantively it’s a lot more than visually enhancing the building, but recognising the power of art to change the psychology of a space.

“As Director of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, in the 1990’s Rudi Fuchs pioneered the curating of exhibitions across chronologies. I visited the space and entered a room full of white paintings by Mondrian, Ryman and Malevich. What struck me was not only the purity of the individual artworks, but how the whole environment and sensibility of the space was affected by the paintings. The audience immediately responded by moving through the space more quietly and slowly than in other rooms in the museum. Twenty white paintings in a simple room were creating an air of spirituality that was, unconsciously, affecting the visitors’ behaviour,” states Urquhart.

Reference to landscape and the natural world are key to artworks becoming a component of the healing process itself. It is why Urquhart’s practice, which has continuously been landscape based, maps so well onto the healthcare environment. His is an approach that brings nature into the process, in what has been termed Biophilic Design.

“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilised people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity; that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.” – John Muir, 1901

What is of importance in this quotation from the Scottish founder of the Sierra Club is not the call to preserve wild landscape for itself, but rather to preserve it as a healing source for humankind. The idea that contact with nature – even the act of viewing a landscape – ameliorates stress and benefits humans in general, including patients in healthcare settings, is evident as far back as the earliest documented histories of China, Greece and Persia. Over 2,000 years ago, greenhouses and gardens, perceived as beneficial to health, were created by Chinese Taoists. The earliest hospitals in Europe were situated in monasteries, which typically included cloistered gardens; the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh was founded in the 17th century as a physic garden, connected to what became the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary.

As early as 1865, the influential 19th century American landscape architect and planner Frederick Law Olmsted wrote that the stressors associated with cities and the demands of jobs are effectively reduced, and restoration and recovery from such negative experiences occurs, during the viewing of nature. Olmsted wrote: “the enjoyment of scenery employs the mind without fatigue and yet exercises it; tranquilises it and yet enlivens it; and thus through the influence of the mind over body, gives the effect of refreshing rest and reinvigoration to the whole system.”

irrespective of socio- economic background, age or gender, natural environments are perceived as an important link to a more stable world

Research has shown that, irrespective of socio-economic background, age or gender, natural environments are perceived as an important link to a more stable world – one that assists in reforming chaotic thoughts and feelings into more harmonious forms. Stress reduction theory proposes that natural environments promote recovery from stress, whilst urban built environments tend to hinder the same process. It is suggested that the underlying mechanism for this benefit works because natural environments do not require large amounts of information to be processed. An individual’s arousal, and therefore stress level, is reduced by spending time in such settings. A five year longitudinal study of elderly participants living in Tokyo found that greater access to green spaces in which they could readily walk was an accurate predictor of longevity. Shinrin-yoku is a type of Japanese relaxation therapy based on simply being in a forest, developed in the 1980’s.

A seminal study in Biophilic Design was conducted by Roger Ulrich on postoperative, cholecystectomy patients in a suburban Pennsylvania hospital between 1972 and 1981. Recovery records were examined to determine whether assignment to a room with a window view of a natural setting might have restorative influences. 23 surgical patients assigned to rooms with windows looking out on a natural scene had shorter postoperative hospital stays, received fewer negative evaluative comments in nurses’ notes, and took fewer potent analgesics than 23 matched patients in similar rooms with windows facing a brick building wall.

In the healthcare aspect of his practice Urquhart references current, evidence based research to underpin his approach. The work is never formulaic, but responds to both the physical space as well as the demographic of the hospital and the local landscape, both physical and cultural. At its core, be it a strategy document, Sanctuary design or external commission, is the recognition that all works should be patient centred.They must find ways to humanise clinical spaces, rooms and corridors to enable healing and dignity to take place.

Thoughtful utilisation of the local landscape is also an important factor in bringing a sense of the familiar into the spaces, engendering a strong sense of ‘place.’ Urquhart cites a prosaic example of referencing the local: “most NHS build projects are commissioned as upgrades or replacements for existing facilities, as was the case at Woodland View Community Hospital. During our research within the existing hospital, which Woodland View would replace, we found numerous prints of Impressionist paintings, randomly hung in corridors. Whilst they brought representations of landscape into the built environment, which was therapeutically helpful, they also spoke of neglect; the prints had clearly been there for a very long time, as evidenced by how faded they were. What they also essentially communicated was that the South of France was an attractive place, 140 years ago, which offered a rather insubstantial connection to both the hospital’s demographic and locality.

“By commissioning a series of Ayrshire landscape photographs for the new hospital, the local and familiar environment was celebrated and it’s now possible to see patients and visitors discussing their own landscape in front of the works. These were curated into the building so that the coastal landscape is referenced near the entrance. Moving through the building, the photographic subjects move inland, culminating in the hills of interior Ayrshire, allowing a sense of moving through the landscape.”

Woodland View has a large proportion of residential elderly patients, many of whom suffer from late stage dementia. Urquhart witnessed visitor/ patient interaction, where conversations were often difficult and repetitive. He explains, “there is a large section of the hospital community who have extremely limited mobility or who cannot leave the wards. For them, external pavilions or artworks throughout the building are inaccessible. Visits from friends or family members take place on the wards, where there is little stimuli and no focus for conversation. This gave rise to the idea of bringing the landscape to them, which resulted in the film project, ‘Outside In.’”

Urquhart worked with video artist Miriam Walsh to create three films with a duration of 20 minutes; just less than the average visit time. An extensive survey of staff identified three popular walks in Ayrshire: one coastal, one in a country park and one in the hills of East Ayrshire. These were selected as it was highly likely the patients had been to these places at some stage earlier in their lives. Each of the walks was filmed as a gently paced movement through the landscape, pausing to focus on a wider view or a detailed observation – such as a flower reflected in the water. All were filmed on uplifting summer days. Functionally, the films are available on tablets or can be communally viewed on the large screens in the wards. The ‘Outside In’ films reconnect people to their landscape, provide focus for conversations and aid in memory retrieval.

Prior to working on Woodland View, Urquhart was commissioned to develop and implement an arts strategy for the new build CAMHS [Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services] Unit in Dundee. The new, 16 bedroom, building opened in 2016. Set in a woodland overlooking the Tay estuary, it replaced an adjacent facility. It was in this existing facility where Urquhart based much of his research. Sensitive to the power of image and text to affect behaviour, he entered a room and was surprised to see a chalked sentence on a blackboard. The sentence read ‘316 killed in air crash.’

Behind this negative message, he found there were good intentions. The demographic of the unit is predominantly profoundly mentally ill teenagers, drawn from a large catchment area extending as far north as Shetland and including most of the Highlands. The unit is residential, with the average length of stay being three months. The young people begin their day with a communal breakfast at which the staff encourage and support communication within the group. To initiate conversation, a piece of daily news is written on the blackboard as a subject for discussion.

natural environments promote recovery from stress, whilst urban built environments tend to hinder the same process

In a considered response to this, Urquhart developed an artwork, entitled ‘Daily Text,’ which was incorporated into the architecture of the new build. The work comprised of an LED linear display unit, installed in the dining room. Placement was carefully considered, with the screen being installed above eye level to encourage heads to be lifted up. Gently scrolling across the screen, in white light, is a singular short text. There is one phrase for each day which relates to an event in the natural world within the unit’s grounds and surrounding landscape. Extensive research in the field alongside expert consultation was required to develop all 365 texts. By allying function to a biophilic approach, ‘Daily Text’ is an example of how attention is drawn to the restorative effects of nature by encouraging awareness of the landscape and engagement with it. Death and destruction have been replaced by moments of observable beauty. As an embedded artwork, Urquhart’s texts for the month of February are published at the end of this feature.

Outwith his healthcare work, Urquhart continues to be active as an artist and educator. His last completed project was a component of the Dunbar Battery restoration project by Rankin Fraser, which was awarded the best budget project of 2017 at the AJ Architecture Awards. The project developed a new public space in the historic 18th century gun battery at Dunbar, a historic harbour town in East Lothian. Urquhart developed a work which is both visually dynamic and sensitive to its location. ‘Sea Cubes’ is a cluster of 11 mirrored cubes. The form of the cube echoes that of the embrasures in the battery walls and is derived from the cubic form of sea salt crystals.

The reflective surface of the cubes allows a principal component of the work to be sunlight; the orientation of the installation allows sunlight to be reflected towards the entrance of the structure. The upper surfaces reflect the sky, creating 11 planes of light. The use of mirrored stainless steel creates a work that brings the surrounding environment into the work, producing complex and shifting interactions between the environment and spectator. As well as its visual dynamism, the work is designed to be used as informal seating, which is why the cubes are 600mm. The location allows the cubes to be used for elevated views out to sea or towards events in the new amphitheatre created by Rankin Fraser.

As well as echoing the battery, the work is intended to contrast the expanse of the sea with a microscopic view of seawater and the hidden life it contains. The forms of 22 species of plankton have been machine engraved on the cubes’ surfaces, including the principal catch species of the Dunbar fishing boats – crab, lobster and prawn. These engraved images were drawn by Urquhart from photographs supplied by the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency. There is an intended ecological aspect to the work as the engravings depict phytoplankton which produce 50% of Earth’s oxygen – or as Urquhart poetically terms it, “every second breath we take.”

Through his extensive landscape practice, Urquhart has carefully sought to re-engage his audience with the natural world. At the heart of his work is an appreciation of landscape and a need to respond to it. Not landscape as a simple picture, but landscape as a way of thinking, a way of reflecting on our own state. In this sense his work is profoundly ecological: it helps to give us a sense of our own place within nature, our place within our habitat as human beings.

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