The Otis Foundation retreats showcase the benefits of healthcare architecture. CHRIS PEDLER reports.
The original Otis Foundation retreat is nestled next to the One Tree Hill National Park in Mandurang.
As you journey along the skinny dirt trail to Bramare there is a remote atmosphere that is oddly comforting – as though being cut off from the world will let your worries blow away with the sway of the trees in the forest that looks down on the home.
Inside the home there are rooms that are designed for comfort and luxury. One wing of the house is dedicated to large bedrooms with views of flowing green while the other leads to a secluded vegetable garden.
In between are rooms to relax in, couches that get the afternoon sun and a meals area that would bring any family together.
Bramare was designed by Bendigo architect Dennis Carter in the 1990s, as a home for Judy Burley and her husband, Andrew Barling.
Judy enjoyed her last years in the house before she died from breast cancer in 2000.
Bramare is full of generous, simple, light-filled spaces, the natural materials used and its open relationship to the surrounding landscape is a highlight.
The house inspired Judy and Andrew to set up the Otis Foundation, a charity that enables others who live with or recover from breast cancer to enjoy the soothing qualities of the Bramare house without charge for a number of days.
After Judy’s death Bramare became a “healing environment”, a term that is frequently and internationally used in the medical world to describe the spatial qualities new hospitals and care facilities ideally should have.
Other support networks around the world run in the same style as the Otis Foundation.
Most notable is Maggies Centre, a British support network with a growing number cancer care centres designed by world famous architects.
The centres are named after Maggie Jencks, who had breast cancer. Her husband, Charles Jencks, is a renowned architecture critic and the couple knew the difference well-designed architecture could make to people’s well-being.
Bramare is built with natural materials such as rammed earth walls, timber, glass and steel, all of which have been left visible and keep their natural colours.
The Otis Foundation’s healing environment combined with the stylish and functional design of the house has been noticed by Dutch architect Mechthild Stuhlmacher.
Ms Stuhlmacher is in Australia for a number of months as the Droga architect in residence at the Australian Institute of Architects.
The idea of how a healing environment is designed and built is what drives Ms Stuhlmacher’s passion.
She wants to learn how Australian architects, with the country’s abundance of natural landscapes, make use of their riches and is researching how to use those qualities for the design for care institutions and buildings for a social purpose.
“(Healthcare architecture) is about how the architecture relates to its surrounding, the landscape, the nature,” Ms Stuhlmacher said.
“It’s about qualities of the spaces, their proportions and the quality of light. It’s about the materials that are used and what benefits or affects it has on people who experience it.
“People without disabilities can go and stand where they want, they can choose their surroundings but a patient in a hospital or facility is committed to being wherever they are.”
Ms Stuhlmacher visited Bramare and other Otis Foundation retreats to look at the skill and style of the architecture that she called “authentically Australian”.
Mr Carter has shown Ms Stuhlmacher a few houses designed by himself and other architects who inspired him.
The projects they went to were architect-designed houses from the 1950s and 1960s, that were beautifully connected to their natural environment.
Ms Stuhlmacher said there had been a generation of architects in Australia who had done fantastic work in the past.
“Those architects built mainly private houses,” she said.
“Most of them are very simple and small compared to present day standards, but relate beautifully to the landscape.”
Ms Stuhlmacher said it’s rewarding to look now at simple architecture again as we can learn from it.
“Not only on how we design houses for the healthy but especially when we design healthcare architecture,” she said.
“Usually the architecture I mean is very basic. The examples I like to look at are not very showy and use modest materials but they get the essence quite right.”
“I hoped by coming here I would find some of that skill that is authentically Australian.
“I have not found much but this (Bramare) was the main one I wanted to see.
“It’s nice to find out this has been a home. It confirms the assumption that if you learn how to deal with essential themes of nature and landscape, you develop the skills of thinking about a home and living environment. Those skills are important for those who design spaces for patients.
“And if you do that right, you can use all these ingredients to make a very meaningful institution.”
Ms Stuhlmacher said spaces like Bramare that are the most intensely perceived by the people who use it are among the most rewarding tasks for architects.
“When we design houses for health care we need to work from the inside out. We don’t want to conceive a building just as an image from the outside,” she said.
It is about how the architecture relates to its surrounding, the landscape, the nature.
Ms Stuhlmacher said that the design of healthcare buildings is an important and internationally recognised issue.
Recent scientific research proves that good design for care buildings can be even economically rewarding.
American and German research has shown that people have shorter stays in hospitals and other facilities if they are offered views to nature, and pleasant light-filled rooms where natural materials have been used.
Ms Stuhlmacher works with her students at the Delft University of Technology on an ongoing design-and-research project about healthcare spaces in relation to gardens.
“The special qualities of a space don’t have to be consciously noticed, but we as architects wouldn’t be doing our jobs if we weren’t convinced that things wouldn’t be sub-consciously noticed,” she said.
While formulating ideas about the relation of nature, architecture and healing, Ms Stuhlmacher found Beyond Beige: Improving architecture for older people and people with disabilities. It helped her discover the Otis Foundation.
In the Netherlands, Ms Stuhlmacher said six years of recession and a high population density has left building design as a lean career.
“Architecture in Europe is not any longer about quantity. It’s about quality,” she said.
“The few new buildings that are built have to be good and very sustainable. If you still want to make a difference and work on meaningful projects you have to look for a niche.”
Ms Stuhlmacher said talks with clients and user groups convinced her that healthcare architecture was the field of work she wanted to specialise in.
“Australian architects have developed a distinct architectural language that relates architecture to landscapes,” she said.
“Usually the architects’ skills are used for private houses for clients. I want to learn from this kind of architecture and apply the skills to healthcare architecture.”
With high expectations of the Otis houses, Ms Stuhlmacher said her visit to Bramare was worthwhile.
“It’s even better than I thought, it’s very generous,” she said.
“What has happened recently in Australian architecture is that they go wild. Whatever is new has to look spectacular, but many of the shapes and colours we see in new buildings don’t really serve a purpose. How will we look at all those things that in five years?
“I think the best way to make sustainable architecture is to design buildings that we will like to look at and use for a long time, and that are good for us, whether we are in good health or not.
“So I’m very happy to see (Bramare) is something so calm and unobtrusive. It’s remarkable that something that is almost 20 years old is still perceived to be fresh, modern and adequate and well maintained.
“If the building really asks to be treated well, that makes them the most lasting ones.”