Discover - Living with Buildings: Health & Architecture exhibition at the Wellcome Collection
Updated: Feb 14
Despite being on since early October, a visit halfway through February caught me by surprise to see so many people at Living with Buildings exhibition at the Wellcome Collection on Euston Road.
After spending just a few moments reading through the first few panels, exploring some of Charles Booth's Poverty maps, and being transfixed over some of the Victorian street photography, I knew I was in for a treat, and had understood why this slightly under the radar exhibition was so popular.
I'm writing this sat in the Riverside Terrace Cafe in the Southbank Centre. It's a beautiful sunny day, and it's finally beginning to feel like spring. There's not a cloud in the sky, and the streets of London are brimming with people who seem to have come out of their winter hibernation. Out on the terrace outside, over looking the Thames are hundreds of children enjoying their half term holidays, tourists making their way perhaps to Tate Modern or Borough Market, then there's the workers who have escaped their offices for a well deserved lunch break to soak in some of the rays we have all been craving recently.
Although the weather has such an effect on mood, especially in places such as England, there's a reason I've left my flat and come to here to work. With the grey and sluggish River Thames flowing by outside, Hungerford Bridge on the left, with the trains toing and froing in and out of the bizarre building that is Charing Cross Station, the spindly leafless trees reminding us just how bitter this winter really was line the bank. This isn't everyones idea of beauty. Perhaps for many, inspiration really comes from being in the countryside, walking the ragged coast without another soul in sight, perhaps on a beach far far away, but for me it's here right. So London is my place of happiness, and even that just shows how much the built up environment has an impact on us, perhaps more than we think.
I mentioned I'm sat in the Southbank complex, if you don't know it, its the ugly complex on the south side of the river. I personally quite like it, but I know many don't, and Prince Charles absolutely hated it. Despite this, today it's a real hive of activity. This architectural style is known Brutalist as in its pretty brutal looking, put together pretty quickly and cheaply with concrete. But it is fit for purpose. The cafe is full and I expect it is most days. From people like me on their laptops, those meeting friends, business meeting and mums and their children all adding to the atmosphere.
Spanning across to now include the Hayward Gallery, the Royal Festival Hall, the Queen Elizabeth Hall, the Purcell Room and more, which all started with the Festival of Britain in 1951. During the Second World War this area was pretty much totally destroyed from enemy bombing, and with an aim to demonstrate to the rest of the world our recovery, a project was put in place to showcase our new technology, art, culture and industry by the London County Council
But I'm digressing, you're really here to read just how good the exhibition I mentioned right back at the start is. But this area is a great example of how our surroundings have such an impact on our physical and mental health. I choose to live in London, I choose to live in a flat, with no garden, and no view out of the windows. So I rely on the rest of London to provide some inspiration, some beauty, something to influence by health and wellbeing. It's the architects primarily who have this role. But this isn't a new revelation. Today we are tempted with the new towering blocks of ultra modern flats, with every amenity imaginable, offering us a lifestyle, not just a flat. But it was Victorians who perhaps started this outlook, and we probably know about it through Charles Dickens.
The 19th century has been characterised in so much of our literature, history books, and photographs by those living in appalling conditions, horrendous overcrowding circumstances in slums. The response was architects and town planners coming up with new garden cities, suburban towns and villages, giving families an opportunity to escape the dirty London streets. Although many of us treat Charles Dickens as more of a historical look into what he saw as he explored the streets of London, he was actually accused by many to be exaggerating the reality and even making it all up.
The exhibition follows history, starting from the ideas of Dickens, Jack London and Charles Booth, into how the Cadbury family, and other Quakers went on to create towns and villages for their factory workers, such as Bourneville. John Cadbury's vision was to create a model village which would “alleviate the evils of modern, more cramped living conditions”, with Arts and Crafts style houses, huge expanses of outdoor space to encourage outdoor sports, a swimming lido, and even issuing little booklets to each of the residencies on breathing techniques and other tips on how to lead a more healthy lifestyle.
Also in the exhibition, is a really interesting look into the design of hospitals and medical practices which really opened my eyes into how much thought could go into such places. The section on Finsbury Health Centre, and how less stairs and less corridors and better circulation throughout the building meant cutting down on time wasting, stopped confusing, and thus lead to a faster recovery and overall better health.
But the exhibition hasn't ignored more recent events, and tastefully included the recent tragedy of the fire at Grenfell Tower in 2017. It acted as a stark reminder on just how important it is to provide safe housing for each and every one of us, and that a lot more really has to be done.
The exhibition is free, and I really have just touched on some of the subjects, artefacts and information which is there. It's on until the 3rd of March, and I certainly will pay a few more visits before then. There's also a lovely cafe there, and a fantastic reading room upstairs which provides a quiet space to read and study.
Heard in London