THE ease with which we navigate our way around our homes, communities and workplaces is something most of us take for granted. However, for people with dementia and Alzheimer’s, the environment in which they live is crucial to their wellbeing.
This subject is tackled in Ireland’s entry to the International Architecture Biennale in Venice, presented by the London-based Irish architect Niall McLaughlin, and curated by Yeoryia Manolopoulou.
The installation is inspired by McLaughlin’s work on a respite centre in Blackrock, Dublin, commissioned by the Alzheimer’s Society of Ireland and completed in 2008.
“Often architecture biennales are fairly self-congratulatory events where architects show glowing pictures of their best projects,” says McLaughlin. “But this time Alejandro Aravena [artistic director] wanted architects to report back on experiences they had and tell other architects what they could learn.
“We felt we should report back on what we’ve learned about dementia and how it impacts on the built environment but also on our homes and our cities; and to some extent what it tells us about ourselves.”
The installation, titled ‘Losing Myself’, is an initiative of Culture Ireland in partnership with the Arts Council, and is exhibited in a large 17th century warehouse, once used by the Venetian navy.
“In this very dark space, we put in an illuminated installation which projects a huge drawing onto the floor. The drawing is effectively a plan of the respite centre in Dublin,” explains McLaughlin.
“When architects draw plans, they see all of the building at once; so they can look at every room in a single sweep and the whole building is present in front of them. But that’s the exact opposite to how a person with dementia would experience a building because their ability to use a recent memory and projections to construct a continuous reality is severely depleted.
“We wanted to draw a plan, not as an architect would do, but try and draw it as though it was witnessed by the people who have dementia. They can only ever experience very small parts of the building at the same time and those are falling away from them quite quickly. So, the building rather than becoming a single coherent architectural object becomes a piece of torn fragments and episodes that can only be held together.”
McLaughlin’s passion for the subject is palpable, and it is obvious he has gained a comprehensive understanding of dementia and Alzheimer’s beyond architecture.
“We spent a lot of time talking to people with dementia, as well as doctors, carers, neuroscientists, and psychologists to try to understand something of the world that people with dementia will inhabit. I had a rule in my office that you couldn’t work on the project unless you had spent a full day minimum in a respite centre because you had to actually witness what it is to be there.
“I remember one day I was sitting with a woman — often people with dementia will lose their inhibitions — and she put her arms around me and I sat with her for about three hours just talking to her about her life. Those things you carry with you forever. The things that people would disclose to you about themselves, to some extent because they are often not as guarded, it’s an extraordinary kind of privilege to be allowed access to that world. We have tried to carry that in some way and embody it in the buildings we have made.”
McLaughlin says that ideally, people with dementia would not be corralled into specialist homes and facilities.
“As much as possible, you would be thinking about designing buildings so that as people age and develop dementia, they can survive and thrive in their own homes. You have an embodied memory of your house that is deeply ingrained, not just in your brain but in your muscles. The familiarity of that is an extraordinary support to people with dementia and when you remove it, it causes great disorientation. So, it is about keeping people at home as much as possible but also beginning to think about our cities and communities as places where people with dementia could thrive. Dementia is a problem for a community, not for a person.”
Professor Sabina Brennan, co-director of the Neuro-Enhancement for Independent Lives (NEIL) Research Programme at Trinity College Dublin, was one of the experts McLaughlin consulted in his research. She feels strongly that society as a whole needs to reconsider its approach to people affected by dementia.
“We have to stop making people with Alzheimer’s and dementia the ‘other’. Their brains are different but at the end of the day it’s you or I with a disease. We need to ask how we have come to a place where we think the best environment is where we put all the people with the same disease together in an artificial place, usually one which reflects the needs of the medical staff or the organisation, or in the better representations, copy or mimic what a home environment would be,” she says.
BOX YOU LIVE IN
Brennan believes that how and where we live as we get older can be a matter of life or death. “If you become older or more frail or struggle to navigate society, the box you live in can become your coffin because you can’t get out of it. There should be a central space in the community where everyone can congregate and replicate that sense of living around a campfire — where people can be together, and there can be mutual aid, space for reciprocity; healthy with disabled, young with old. Economies of scale mean the cost of building and other basic needs can be shared. An environment and architecture designed to suit the needs of the aged will benefit all of us. Niall’s project is amazing because it’s about architecture starting a conversation and forcing people to question the direction in which they are going.”
As part of the ‘Losing Myself’ project, McLaughlin and his team came up with 16 lessons, which can be found on the website which accompanies the project. “One thing we wanted to say to all architects is that dementia is not just an issue for specialised environments. If you are designing a theatre, concert hall, train station or supermarket, you are obliged under the building regulations to allow people in wheelchairs to have full access. But the same things don’t apply to the thinking you might put into design for dementia. All architects should know more about dementia and should be designing buildings with that in mind,” he says.
Irish audiences will have the chance to experience the ‘Losing Myself’ exhibition when it is adapted for an Arts Council supported national tour next year. As for McLaughlin, he says the experience has been hugely rewarding but he would like to utilise his expertise in the area more.
“We have built up a huge fund of knowledge and experience that we would love to find a way of using. We are sorry that we have only ever built one of these buildings; we’d like to build more. They are often procured in a very institutional kind of way that doesn’t really admit for the design that we do and I think that’s a pity. We’d love to have another crack at one but that hasn’t happened yet.”