McCullough Mulvin Architects: Bessboro House, Cork


The Child and Adult Psychiatric Unit at Bessboro House will, when completed in the near future, be the first of four similar institutions to open in the state. It is a particularly challenging brief, which brings together a 20-bed residential care unit with a small school and group therapy facilities for children and young adults from the ages of eight to sixteen.

As the architects state on their website, “Bessboro House and its demesne has been a therapeutic campus for many years under the auspices of the Sacred Heart Sisters, who still live in the 18th century house.” The campus is certainly restful and well-shielded from intrusive passers-by, lying at the end of a long avenue bordered on one site by mature trees and on the other side by a field of cuds well inspected by curious ruminants.

A chapel and maternity hospital on site date from the 1920s, and it was the architects’ brief that these buildings, combined with the existing farm buildings, form the basis for a ‘therapeutic campus’. With recent exposés of the involvement of the Catholic Church in institutional care, particularly the Ryan Report, it is a hugely charged brief and site; attempting to downplay the traditional mixed institutionally religious/religiously institutional language of the buildings, without either offending the order that granted the facilities or negatively altering the fabric of them in order to fall in line with some politically correct ideal, is a delicate path to tread.

Beyond that, and far more immediately relevant, are the impositions placed by building regulations and best-practice documents on the design and fit-out of institutions dealing with people in danger of harming themselves or others. As reported by Valerie Mulvin of McCullough Mulvin Architects, one of the care workers described the user base as describing “the whole spectrum, from the mad to the bad”. The architects intensely felt the burden to “safeguard the safety of the people who are here, once they’re here”; professionally, it was reflected in a massive detailing task that focused on eliminating ligature points and considering at every turn the potential for self-harm that the building could possibly provide.

Vital to remember though, is that this isn’t a prison facility: those people who spend time here are patients, not criminals. It is first and foremost a medical institution, and the architects were keen to address issues that they felt were a major factor in the design of hospitals. Foremost among these, was the fact that “[one] never gets a sense of the inside or the outside as a whole being” in typical hospitals, that there is always a disconnect between the ill and the rest of the world which isn’t necessarily healthy or a positive factor in recovery.
Thus, in terms of both a conceptual idea behind the design and as an initial move with regard to site strategy, Valerie Mulvin described the approach as “gathering the space and making a relationship with the relationship”. The new buildings would engulf the existing buildings, “reversing patterns of use and expectation”. Something fundamental to the execution of both sets of buildings, the entirely new and the converted existing, was the intention to ‘de-institutionalise the corridor’; in the upper corridors, this is done by introducing rooflights to pull light down into an otherwise standard double-loaded corridor, in the lower by allowing visual links between the corridor and the rooms off it.

Perhaps the most successful element of the scheme is the newly created courtyard garden. Split in two by a curiously Niemeyer-esque curved cast-concrete wall, punctured by variously sized portholes and topped with a deep-sectioned canopy, the garden on one side opens to views of the fields and on the other acts as a secure outdoor space between the two elements of the scheme. The landscape side has a cleverly created mound that rises in front of a fence that skirts the avenue, visually shielding this potentially upsetting security measure from the patients. It’s a thoughtful and effective touch.

The design and execution of a project like Bessboro House is a severe and serious challenge. It’s fair to say that it is a case where architecture has the chance to change lives, and there is no doubt that it is a facility that deals with some of the most vulnerable people in society. In such briefs, the duty of care and the burden of any potential failure weighs heavily on the architect, and it is vital both to accept these professional responsibilities and not to let them unnecessarily outweigh the importance of creating an architecture and environment which are beneficial in their own right.

Furthermore, in dealing with two government agencies, in this case the HSE and the Dept of Education, as well as a non-state institution in the Sacred Heart Sisters, the ability to effectively analyse the brief and refine the instructions given is paramount. In Bessboro House, McCullough Mulvin have worked with a restricted budget on an extremely difficult brief, to create a vital and new piece of architecture which hopefully can have a positive impact on many childrens’ lives for years to come.

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