Designing the new Royal Children’s Hospital

This article was first published for ArtsHub on Friday, 4th November, 2011

Last week in Melbourne, the Queen officially opened the new Royal Children’s Hospital building in Parkville, which sets a new benchmark for hospitals around the world.

After over five years of planning and building children will start moving into the new building at the end of November. The new $1b hospital will provide 355 beds and have the capacity to treat an additional 35,000 patients a year, compared with the previous building directly to its east on Flemington Road that has housed it since 1963.

At the launch last week was lead designer on the project Kristen Whittle, who is also one of the Directors of Bates Smart, which has designed many of Melbourne’s recent iconic buildings such as Federation Square and Media House in Docklands,.

‘I’m not the only person to believe this really is a benchmark project in the world… A lot of people are realizing that the building is probably the best hospital, certainly the best children’s hospital, that exists.’

He says he’s never experienced, on a professional level, anything as significant or as rewarding, even if there was initial trepidation knowing this would be a project ‘bigger than Ben Hur’. At one point there were over 100 architects and designers working on the project with over 300 across the past five years.

Whittle studied at Manchester University in England and completed postgraduate studies at SCI-Arc in Los Angles winning the internationally recognised Shinkenchiku Residential Design Competition in 1996. With Herzog & De Meuron in Basel Switzerland, he led the design of the Laban Dance Centre  and also played a significant role in the interior development of the Tate Modern in London.

A Park within a Park

The inspiration for the hospital’s design is the surround Royal Park, with the approach being one of creating a building that is a ‘park within a park’, linked and entwined with its environment.

This concept had to be translated, says Whittle into an aesthetic language that carried through to ever aspect of the interior and exterior design in a coherent and cohesive way.

The first major step in the architectural design process was to disaggregate what would normally be one building into a range of buildings, creating a lower profile campus with open space between each of its wings surrounded by park. The building was orientated north to maximize the natural light on as many exterior faces as possible. The sloping site was then used so that the building met the outside parkland on three different levels.

Much of any hospital’s planning says Whittle is about arranging and stacking different clinical spaces in the right places. Allowing for three levels means clinical spaces that would normally be up in the air can be close to parkland.

The idea of ‘park’ flowed through to the creation of lots of curved walls, the use of natural timber veneers and using natural forms to create the nurse’s station desks centred in each of the ward blocks. The use of soft curves and timber was also used in the bedrooms, 85% of which are single rooms with ensuites and convertible double sofa beds. Carpets were developed using natural patternations and colour-matched to the natural world, with thought given to how the design could break down the apparent distance you saw in front of you making corridors more warm.

‘If you were able to abstract nature, take its experiential aspects and translate that into architecture… that’s exactly what we’ve done…so it all speaks, if you like of ‘parkness’. I think that you feel that when you’re walking into the building. It’s got an open, happy, friendly, understanding sort-of familiar feel about it and that’s exactly what we were wanting to achieve.’

The Street

Internally the building is opened up via The Street, a six-storey light filled publically accessible atrium that unites all the different functions of the hospital, or neighborhoods, which eases way-finding as well as providing constant views out to the surrounding parkland, giving a sense of place and time.

The Art within

Within this atrium at the junction of the busy outpatients department is a 14 m tall sculpture by Alexander Knox known as ‘Creature’, a colourful, insectoid-being peacefully staring at a butterfly resting on one of its curved limbs. Above Creature is a mobile sculpture of five butterflies called ‘Sky Garden’ by Jade Oakley.

These artworks bring colour, life, and animation to the interior. They remind people, says Whittle of the positive things in life, giving them a sense of hope.

Meerkats and Fish

The hospital also houses at the end of the ambulatory care waiting area a group of nine meerkats transferred and looked after on an on-going basis by keepers from the nearby Melbourne Zoo and then on The Street near the emergency department is a two storey coral reef aquarium.

These universal and natural elements help the building serve children of many different age groups and from many different cultural backgrounds. They provide a welcome distraction to visitors to the hospital, which is of course why they are there.

For stressed out families trying to deal with restless children waiting for their siblings to be treated they are a source of entertainment and for those children who are patients of the hospital they offer uplifting, restorative experiences.

Not just child-friendly the animals provide reaffirming ways of calming people down, taking their minds off what’s going on and why they’re there. This aspect create a sense of normality and deinstitutionalizes the hospital experience, Whittle says, helping take away from kid’s minds the associations of the hospital with pain and illness.

The hospital also has a Hoyts cinema with wheelchair access, a small basketball court and several playgrounds where kids can be active, as well as therapy gardens.

Scienceworks has provide many interactive experimental stands in waiting neighborhoods around the hospital that again help provide entertainment and distraction for children and their families.

Evidence based design

The project design also drew heavily on the work of international psychologists and researchers such as Roger Ulrich evidence-based design theories, who studied the value of ‘a view’ and of ‘a picture’ on health outcomes on foreshortening stays in hospital.

‘They proved that over time those rooms that had better views and more access to nature… have better health outcomes. People got better quicker,’ says Whittle. ‘So, once there was proof, you then have to ask yourself why aren’t our buildings generally approaching themselves in that manner?

Even if you’re not hospitalized but you’re working hard on some research in a hospital or if you’re a nurse who’s done a 12 hour shift and needs a break… You need to be able to go somewhere to get away from it and to restore your energies and restore your capability and your mental faculties and this is what evidence based design is all about.’ It is also about spatial mapping, looking at distances between nurse’s stations and bedrooms, between wash basin to increase hygiene and how much light gets into a room, how big a window is – it all comes into play on the potential health benefits the building can provide.

Research and consultation on creating child friendly and child-like spaces has also been a major part of the design process, particularly in creating different spaces for children of different ages. Younger children, who are the majority of patients tend to prefer a sense of containment and structure, which is associated with safety, yet slightly older children enjoy a sense of fantasy, excitement and visual stimulation. For the older children and teenagers the hospital needed to be able to provide a sense of independence and more adult approaches to space.

‘All of those different aspects or interpretations of space needed to be therefore taken on board when we were setting about creating a language for the building – so it doesn’t have a pejorative baby-like aura,’ says Whittle nor has it engaged with ‘Disney-like’ or clashing colour elements given the overarching nature focused philosophy drawn from the park.

The building will be a workplace for over 4,000 staff, including medical researchers, doctors, nurses and ancillary care workers. It’s also says Whittle, clearly a place for parents to feel settled, that needs to be responsive to adults generally who are taking care of the their children. ‘It needed to be a place which was focused on children primarily, but accessible to everyone and certainly be a positive environment and workplace.’

The Royal Children’s Hospital design goes back, he says to the fundamentals, to the need for buildings to support the psychological and social needs of the people housed within them – to a human centred approach that he believes is often lacking from our cities.

Stage 2

In about six months work will begin on Stage 2, which will see the refurbishing of the two pre-existing buildings that are to be retained on the site, the development of a 3 ½ star100 room hotel for visiting professionals and patients relatives particularly those coming from interstate, an additional crèche, gym and a small supermarket for people working within the building or parents who are darting home to make dinner. Basically, Stage 2 will provide non-essential additional amenities to support the everyday lives of the people involved in the hospital.

There will also be scope to build an additional building or buildings on the 4.1ha pre-existing site in the future.

Kristen Whittle says working on the Royal Children’s Hospital has been life changing. ‘Once you dig down in to what your true feelings are about something you can’t go back from that,’ he says. ‘It unearths a level of truth and a level of understanding… a high level of empathy… to the human condition, and once you get to that point you have to say to yourself, “Well, this is your goal in life. This is your purpose: to enable this type of project to come to bear, to be within the city.” … and I personally believe, it’s really the true goal or role of architecture.


Kristen Whittle will be amongst those speaking at the 3rd Annual International Arts and Health Conference – The Art of Good Health and Wellbeing, being held in Canberra from 14017 November, 2011 at the National Gallery of Australia.


For details of the conference visit