Monday, January 30, 2012

A Case Study – Part 3: The Tree of Life

This is the third post of a series dedicated to a case study of a single project—the VA Roseburg Healthcare System Community Living Center (CLC) Expansion— designed by Robertson/Sherwood/Architects. Click on “A Case Study” in the Labels list at right for the full series.

Humans have always been attracted to particularly majestic and singular trees. It’s part of our nature, perhaps a vestigial legacy of our arboreal ancestry. We view trees as sacred, as symbols of antiquity and strength. We observe their growth, annual decay, and the subsequent rebirth of their foliage, and cannot help but regard them as analogs for our own lives and the promise of resurrection.

As a mythological or religious motif, many-branched trees allude to the interconnectedness of all living things. We speak of the “evolutionary tree” as well as our “family tree.” According to biblical accounts, the Tree of Life sat in the Garden of Eden. The fabled tree expressed God’s benevolence by providing protection and fruit, and thereby regeneration. Trees in other faiths have likewise come to symbolize life and the richness it entails.

Trees also signify points of connection between heaven and Earth: the axis mundi or cosmic tree. As Wikipedia states, the notion of a cosmic tree unites three planes—sky (branches), earth (trunk), and underworld (roots)—allowing travel and correspondence between higher and lower realms. The cosmic tree stands at “the center of the world” as a microcosm of universal order. It supports the heavens while at the same time marking their point of origin.

Yggdrasil, a modern attempt to reconstruct the Norse world tree (from Wikipedia)

Sarah Williams Goldhagen, the architecture critic for The New Republic, has additionally written about trees as visual metaphors of our living in a body on earth:

Trees are static, stable objects. Someone connected to a community is “rooted” there; a psychologically sturdy friend’s feet are firmly “planted” on the ground. We use trees to describe human bodies and souls: the area from our neck to pelvis is our “trunk”; someone reliable is “solid as an oak”; someone exploring a new area of inquiry is “branching out.”

We see in the morphology of trees a parallel with our own upright bodies. We anthropomorphize them, especially those possessed of distinct character or appeal. They shelter us as we gather under their leafy boughs to stay dry or for respite from the sun. With time, they become our companions, reliable and reassuring old friends.

Goldhagen’s treatise about trees focused upon how the associations we make emerge from the fact we live inside bodies, in a concrete world, and we tend to think in metaphors grounded in that embodiment. She noted that tree motifs are appearing in the work of contemporary architects. As I’m about to explain, it is a very real tree, not a facsimile, that figures prominently in my firm’s design solution for the VA Roseburg Community Living Center Expansion project.

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Google Earth view of the VA Roseburg Medical Center; north is to the right. The area identified by "A" was the site proposed by the VA; the "B" area is the site ultimately selected after analysis by Robertson/Sherwood/Architects.

The VA Roseburg Healthcare System identified a preferred site for its new Alzheimer’s and dementia care facility prior to bringing Robertson/Sherwood/Architects on board. The site would be south of the existing “Transitional Care Unit,” which was constructed in 1998 in accordance with a design by the late Ed Waterbury, AIA. Ed fashioned the TCU in the mold of a traditional nursing home, albeit one dedicated to rehabilitative care (in other words, the patients are destined to “transition” out of the facility). The VA was determined to build the new CLC Expansion immediately next door to the TCU to take advantage of functional adjacencies and economies. The combined facility would become the Community Living Center.

We quickly realized that the site selected by the VA was less than ideal. Besides being ill-proportioned, it is presently home to the most convenient parking for the TCU. Constructing the CLC Expansion would displace dozens of spaces and a well-used bus loading/drop-off lane. In addition, the new building would eliminate desirable views to the south from patient rooms and common areas in the TCU. If built where the VA envisioned, the CLC Expansion would also relate poorly to the larger campus plan, which formally arrays the original 1932 hospital buildings in Beaux Arts fashion around a large, oval green.

CLC Expansion massing study (orange building in image) on the initially proposed site, south of the TCU (white building).

We persuaded the VA Roseburg administration to reconsider its directive to locate the CLC Expansion on the TCU parking lot. Consequently, its charge to us was to analyze alternative site options and forward a recommendation.

Ultimately, we settled upon a location that wasn’t even on the VA’s radar screen before we started. This site is nestled compactly between the TCU to the south and Building 1 (the main hospital building) and Building 71 (Dietetics) to the north.(1) It offers better proximity to each of these facilities, as well as superior access for service and emergency vehicles. It does not displace as much valuable parking. The site presents the prospect of a direct architectural relationship to the formal greensward. Most notably, it features an impressive collection of mature trees and landscaping, which we could incorporate into our design.

The prospect of fitting the residentially scaled program components amid mature landscaping was very appealing. We strongly believe our chosen site presents the best opportunity to provide patients with the dignified, de-institutionalized, and life-enhancing environment sought by the VA. We envision it as a place of natural refuge, within which the inevitability of time and mortality is managed gracefully.

Plan depicting existing site utilities and topography. Note the locations of Buildings T-13 and T-14.

So why wasn’t this site considered by the VA to begin with? The reason is that it’s already occupied: Building T-13 (Administration) and Building T-14 (Human Resources) are situated exactly where we proposed to locate the new CLC Expansion. The powers-that-be did not recognize its potential because they could not think outside of the box and imagine removing the existing buildings. I should note that the “T” in their designations stands for temporary, as these modular structures were installed as stop-gap measures decades ago to address a space shortfall. Our recommendation to build on this site may have accelerated the decommissioning of T-13 and T-14, but their demise was coming due soon anyway.(2)

The most remarkable of the established plantings we propose to retain is an extraordinarily large and exotic looking Persian silk tree.(3) By virtue of its size and shape (with an expansive crown providing dappled shade), the tree is a commanding presence. It sits squarely between T-13 and T-14, ideally situated to become the focal point of a new courtyard at the center of our CLC Expansion. This specimen is so unique and visually arresting we cannot help but envision it assuming a meaningful role as the proverbial Tree of Life.

The Persian silk tree (my photo)

Real trees, fragrant flowers, breezes, and access to sunlight are among the best means to provide Alzheimer’s and dementia patients with sensory stimulation and exercise, reducing stress and tension. The sights, sounds, and smells of nature will evoke positive feelings and recall pleasant past experiences. Our design will honor the service rendered by the veterans by offering a place of security and natural solace with the silk tree as its focus.

The VA’s stated goal is to provide a comfortable and functional home for veterans burdened by the indignities of memory loss and cognitive dysfunction. Nevertheless, we also want to imbue the project with a symbolic recognition of the entire trajectory of their lives—their place (and also ours) in the grander scheme of things. The silk tree will figure prominently in this regard, reminding patients, their families, and the caregivers of the interconnectedness of life, its cycles, and the passage of time.

As the next post in this series will elaborate, an awareness of the symbolism inherent in the tree, the garden, and the courtyard shaped our design for the CLC Expansion. The persistence of ancient tree myths is a testament to the power of trees as symbols. The site we chose is blessed by the presence of many fine specimens. We found our muse in the magnificent Tree of Life at its center.

Next in the Case Study series: Locus Amoenus

(1)  The Department of Veterans Affairs is short on charm and sentiment when it comes to naming its facilities. No-nonsense acronyms and numbers are the order of the day.

(2) This experience highlights the importance of site selection as a critical component of any project. It isn’t always possible, but having the design team participate in the site selection process increases the likelihood of a successful project. I find it hard to imagine now how difficult our challenge would have been if we were saddled with the original site located south of the TCU.

(3)  Also known as a mimosa tree, the Persian silk tree is obviously not indigenous to Southern Oregon and the Umpqua Valley. Horticulturalists imported the species to this region for its ornamental value. It is now actually considered an invasive species in the eastern United States, where it is susceptible to fungal diseases.

1 comment:

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