Close to Home

Project

‘Close to Home’ engages in one of the key challenges of today’s rapidly urbanising world – mental health. Often stigmatized and misinterpreted, mental healthcare facilities in China are typically large, centralized and inhumane institutions located far from the everyday spaces of their users.  Based on a process of interdisciplinary research and design speculation, this project posits a local alternative in the urban setting of Beijing, where mental health care is of immense urgency. Each intervention is crafted and represented with precision through a range of architectural media, including drawings, models, animations and a design manual which speculates on potential architectural interventions made across the city fabric. In strengthening existing communities and neighbourhood structures, the project explores how architecture could play an essential role in ensuring the future mental well-being of our urban lives.

In the last 30 years China has developed economically, socially and urbanistically at an unprecedented rate. Following the opening up of the country to the market economy at the end of the 1970s, China’s towns and cities have grown beyond previous comprehension, and many of their citizens have relocated from the countryside in search of the vast array of opportunities that urbanised China can offer.

This has placed enormous strain on the built environment, its infrastructure and has caused wide-scale pollution. In the last 10 years there has been much debate over how the Chinese government can mitigate these decrimental phenomena.

These changes have also caused increased strain on Chinese citizen’s mental health, as the pressures and stresses of rapid change impacts upon all aspects of urban life. This has been relatively little discussed, and leaves the country ill prepared to face the scale of the mental health crisis which is upon it.

In this project I argue that solutions may be found within existing community and neighbourhood structures.This is achieved by proposing a preventative & rehabilitational focused psychiatric care model based upon a urban acupuncture of care facilities across the city fabric, rather than the current model of reactive centralised institutions.Architectural spaces and interventions are networked together by a digital layer of communication technology, bringing mental healthcare physically, and virtually, closer to each of the city’s citizens, and in doing so increasing communal and neighbourly interaction and reducing stigma and fear of illness, which is integral for good mental health.

Speculative investigations for this imagined prototype project are focused at the edge of the central Beijing’s oldest district: Xicheng. Xicheng contains the broadest spectrum of urban typologies in the city and is home to central Beijing’s last remaining psychiatric hospital.

While the scale of the crisis spans the whole country, this project proposes a series of interventions which form the basis of a Design Manual, speculating on a possible alternative trajectory for Chinese urban mental healthcare.The project focuses on a test site for these proposals, offering programs which are largely absent from the current mental healthcare system. These interventions will support community awareness, early diagnosis and also recovery support and community reintegration for patients.

Interview

What prompted the project?

I have spent 18 months studying urban China, specifically Beijing. I was initially investigating the way in which the city is adopting ‘SmartCity’ technology, and the way that it’s citizens are utilising the incredible proliferation of mobile phones and super apps such as WeChat to unlock commercial opportunities in their local communities, and from within their homes. I became aware of the incredible pressure that urban life in China placed upon its residents. Growth in the last 3 decades has been unprecedented, and while much is known about the effects that this has had on the city’s physicality, relatively little is known about the effect on the city’s psychology. Through discussions with local academics and mental healthcare workers I saw how China’s mental health infrastructure has been left long behind developments in the rest of the economy, and is still largely reliant upon a highly medicated and centralized institutional model, which is reactive rather than proactive, leaving millions of suffers without care. In the hutong I had seen such potential in citizen’s ability to utilize traditional community structures, humane architectural scales and networked technology, and so wanted to use this project to speculate how that same resourcefulness could be applied to a model of mental healthcare.

What questions does the project raise and which does it answer

I’m interested in the power of architecture to offer not only spacial solutions to programmatic needs, but to offer moments of hope and joy, or at least some respite from the monotony of much contemporary urban life. Architecture can contribute towards the unexpected opportunity, and should not be afraid of exploiting its ability to be romantic and optimistic, especially when it is initially speculative. I was interested in how this could be applied to the thematic of mental healthcare, who’s architectural manifestations in China are currently devoid of any moments of romance or hope. They are often inhumane spaces, when I feel the need is vitally for humane and calming atmosphere. I wanted the project to ask whether the architecture of mental healthcare could help in de-stigmatising psychiatric illness, making it a more acceptable and approachable part of community life rather than being externalized and threatening. Globally, 1 in 4 of us will be affected by a mental illness, and so the spaces in which it is treated should be accessible, locally contextual & hopeful.

Where do you see the project developing? To what extent are you interested in trying to implement the diverse strategies?

I hope to expand beyond this initial provocation, or prototype. I am aware that designing to comprehensively meet the needs of mental healthcare is a task which is well beyond the scale and scope of what I have achieved here, but I intend that it serves as a beginning of a longer journey through which I can develop towards a meaningful and applicable contribution. Currently, I am actively seeking Chinese collaborators from within psychiatry, academia and architecture, and hope to be able to engage Chinese healthcare providers or governmental institutions in the near future.

What informed the choice of Beijing as case study? Do you see potential in exporting this model to other cities in China and abroad?

On my first visit to Beijing in 2017 I had initially found it to be completely overwhelming. Its shear scale, speed of development and politics were like nothing that I had experienced while working in Europe. However, once I begun to understand the more local neighborhood scale social organisations and networks, the city gradually became more understandable and easier to relate to. In the hutongs I found very intimate, overlapping communities, alongside a vernacular architecture of necessity which has many parallels to architecture that I was familiar with back home. However, in Beijing, as in many of China’s megacities, these areas are under threat both from commercial development (which would often rather they were completely demolished) or they are threatened by a approach to conservation which encourages gentrification and rapidly increased property values. I was interested in how these communities could survive against these odds, and how lessons could be learnt from them which could apply more generally in chinese urbanism.

How did you approach the research of the topic? What tools did you use?

The research was initially undertaken via a process of filmaking, documenting the lived experience from within these communities. I was fortunate to have the support of colleagues and collaborators from the local neighborhoods, and this enabled me to get a unique insight into life in the hutong. Later this research expanded to a broad literature review of mental health policy and academic research, which formed the basis of a research paper where I was able to catalog my experiences alongside relevant inputs from experts in the fields of psychology and healthcare management. I used photography extensively to observe the fascinating moments of architectural complexity and ingenuity I found in the city.

How sustainable do you envision the current situation to be with China continuing to grow and urbanise?

The enormous growth of china’s cities has of course had a impact globally on the environment, the shear volume of high carbon emitting materials that contemporary Chinese architecture is dominated by – concrete, steel, glass – needs to be addressed before China’s urban growth can be physically sustainable. I think its vital to also consider the psychological sustainability of Chinese urbanism, and that is what I have aimed this project at considering. The psychological burden that mental health illnesses can cause to society are hard to measure in totality, but un-dealt with will become equally unsustainable for growth as overuse of fossil fuels and carbon emitting materials.

What informed the different media through which the project is articulated and revealed?

As the majority of the project was conducted from Denmark, I relied upon a process of detailed model making to inform an understanding of the sites, scales and techtonics of the existing urban fabric. Working between scales of modeling, from 1.1000 to 1.10 I rigorously tested massing, layering and materials, and combined this with photo-collage and animated renderings (using site sound recordings and interviews) to add an impression of atmosphere and temporality. The project is as much about the life around the proposals as it is with life within them, and so I was inspired by the drawings found in traditional Chinese scrolls, particularity the Song dynasty scroll ‘Along the River During the Qingming Festival’. By caputuring the street scenes in oblique planometric projection, it allows the drawing to convey a procession and is filled with moments of interaction and animation.

What role does the magazine hold as means through which to distribute and share the project?

I decided that the project should be represented and communicated both digitally and physically, and so was drawn to the format of the ‘Design Guide’. This would enable the project to be understood narratively, from its initial research through to architectural representation. As the project’s intention is to form a prototype of a new model of distributed care and mental wellness facilities, I was interested to compile the design and research together into one document which could then be shared between potential stakeholders both digitally and physically.

How do you plan on sharing your ideas and trying to make a change?

I intend to expand the project during the coming months, and hope to find collaborators from within China with whom I can continue to layer understanding and insight into the work. My ambition would be that the project leaves paper and is in some way realizable, as there is an evident growing need for new thinking in the architectural and urban responses to mental illness.

What is for you the architects most important tool?

At our best I think architects are uniquely able to use the power of imagination and speculation to connect other fields of expertise and resolve them eloquently into real world solutions to societal changes.

About

Cameron Clarke trained as an architect at the Sheffield School of Architecture and the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts. He worked on a broad range of project scales while practicing in London, from furniture design to masterplanning. He currently works in Copenhagen while developing his thesis research project ‘Close to Home’ between Europe and China. More information about his work can be found at www.cameronclarke.cc

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