Warneford Hospital Masterplan - Many People; One Place

Dr Patricia Martin del Guayo

Patricia is an architect and masterplanner at Shepheard Epstein Hunter and her experience includes Space Park Leicester, Warneford Hospital and other university projects. She spoke at the New London Architecture Knowledge Capital Conference in May2018 about the development of the Warneford Hospital Masterplan.

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Peter Shepheard, one of the founders of our practice, often spoke of the importance of the spaces in between, the white space around the architecture which is fundamental in creating academic communities. The more complex the project, the more vital these in-between spaces become in achieving a coherent and singular sense of place.

Our masterplan for the Warneford Hospital in Headington, Oxford is one such complex project. The Warneford was opened in 1826 and has been serving the needs of local people with mental health issues for almost two hundred years. The original buildings – and others added more recently – are increasingly unfit for purpose, both for the patients and the university researchers who now work with the hospital.

Our clients, the Oxford Health NHS Foundation Trust and the University of Oxford, saw this as an opportunity to consider how the site might be developed to its full potential. Their ambitious vision is, in effect, for Warneford to become a global ‘powerhouse’, bringing together patients with clinical and academic specialists from a number of local centres of excellence to complete a feedback loop between practice and care, transforming discovery science into new mental health and dementia treatments. Research spaces and improved clinical facilities for in- and outpatients will sit alongside housing for key workers.

To attract the world’s top experts in mental health, Warneford will need to be a very special, singular place; the funding requirement is significant and it is unlikely that such a knowledge cluster could happen in many places other than Oxford. Research facilities – and the associated key worker housing for hospital staff and young scientists – will need to be of the highest quality, a flexible canvas which will bring in the best research groups from across the world. Opportunities for collaboration between these groups and the patients and staff at Warneford will be fundamental in advancing pioneering treatments.

So how does the masterplan provide those all-important in-between spaces, the infrastructure to support the new, collaborative community mapped out by our clients?

Mental health institutions are traditionally isolated from their neighbouring communities, but here the clinical accommodation will become the focus of a far more open site. While such openness will challenge – and, hopefully, transform – public perception of mental health, it will need to be balanced with the need to preserve patients’ dignity, privacy and safety.

The site, which is effectively walled off at the moment, will become more accessible to users and the general public. We have reduced car usage by creating green corridors which connect to existing cycling and walking routes between Oxford’s historic city centre and local neighbourhoods such as Headington. This will mesh the site more firmly within the network of green spaces and research clusters across the city.

We also wanted to give people reasons to stay at Warneford rather than just passing through, so have proposed creating a café within the listed hospital buildings at the heart of the site and restoring their beautiful landscaped setting. This will be open to the local community as well as patients, staff and researchers and is likely to become an important meeting place within the site.

Around this focal point, research and clinical facilities, and residential accommodation, will be developed on a plot-by-plot basis. Although the density of the site will be increased, this won’t be at the expense of the green space: the landscape will contribute significantly to the overall sense of place.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we wanted to create a common ground for collaboration, and the informal exchange of knowledge. A new atrium will connect the two main hospital buildings close to the café. This is a memorable, multipurpose space, flexible enough to accommodate many different kinds of events and gathering. More importantly, it will offer the opportunities for the kind of chance encounters and off-the-cuff conversations between great minds which can, potentially, lead to significant discoveries. This most generous of in-between spaces is pivotal to the masterplan and fundamental in creating the singular creative and collaborative environment envisaged by our clients.