Saturday, July 7, 2012

A Case Study – Part 4: Locus Amoenus

The Course of Empire: The Arcadian or Pastoral State, by Thomas Cole (1834)

This is the fourth 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.

Serendipity kindles inspiration. Our misgivings for the Community Living Center Expansion site presented to us by the VA prompted the ad hoc search for an alternative. If it weren’t for the patent shortcomings of that initial prospect we might never have stumbled upon the fertile alternative we ultimately selected.

Abounding with potential and anchored by a remarkably large and exotic-looking Persian silk tree, the chosen site for the CLC Expansion offers the promise of paradise. We imagine it as a place of refuge from the processes of time and mortality, even as the depredations of dementia and memory loss exact their toll. It will be a pastoral haven for the aging veterans who will be consigned there, a languid and Arcadian setting for the denouement of their life stories.

Our desire to create a place of refuge (as well as very necessary practical considerations) prompted our principal design response. We arrayed the program components—two “houses” accommodating ten residents each, a gatehouse, and a support wing—around a secure courtyard centered upon the silk tree. As mentioned in Part 3 of this case study, one of our objectives is to symbolically acknowledge life’s trajectory. The silk tree figures prominently in this regard by representing the interconnectedness of all life, its cycles, and the passage of time. The well-defined courtyard likewise relates the earth beneath with the sky above, and earthly existence with cosmic reverence. 

Concept sketch

Throughout history, courtyards have functioned as moderators of climate and safe havens protecting their occupants. In dense, urban settings, enclosed residential courtyards offer direct contact with nature where no other connection is possible. Archetypal courtyards also evolved to stand in as analogs for the natural environment or as microcosms of the universe. In this latter respect they function as mandalas(1), replete with the spiritual and ritual significance traditionally associated with such geometric compositions.

Our courtyard for the CLC Expansion will fulfill these roles. Additionally, we have configured it to provide a hierarchy of places to be: a protective harbor nestled against the house; under the expansive, sheltering boughs of the silk tree; along trellised and open walks, etc. The hierarchy sets up a nested precinct at the hub of which is the magnificent tree. However, the courtyard will not be completely enclosed. Its southeast corner will open toward a vista of the main oval on the VA Roseburg Medical Center campus, providing a visual connection to the larger world.(2)

Fundamentally, we picture the courtyard as a manifestation of the utopian locus amoenus(3). It will be an idyllic landscape in the physical sense as well as a landscape for the mind (transporting one to remote places and times). It will conceptually be a realm for the blessed, an idealized garden with connotations of Eden before the fall. It will be a place where the aging residents feel the sun on their faces and the breeze in their thinning hair. It will be filled with chirping crickets and birds, and redolent with the fragrance of flowering plants. We want it to be regarded as an allegorical landscape and relished as an oasis of comfort and serenity.

According to Wikipedia, the locus amoenus possesses three basic elements: trees, grass, and water. Accordingly, we’re incorporating these elements into our design. To realize our vision, we enlisted the knowledge and skill of Cameron McCarthy Landscape Architecture & Planning, in particular the services of Justin Lanphear, ASLA.

Justin extended the concept of the locus amoenus beyond the courtyard to include the entire setting of which the CLC Expansion will be a part. He dedicated as much attention to the design of the spaces surrounding the new facility as he did the central secure courtyard. 
View looking toward the Community Living Center Expansion project site. Note the mature landscaping (my photo).

Placing the project in the midst of existing buildings and mature trees will create a variety of distinct outdoor zones. Justin assigned names to each of these zones, hinting at their projected character. In addition to the “Secured Courtyard,” these include the “Entry Landscape” and two contemplation gardens:“Woodland Forest” and “Open Forest.”Justin described the specific features of each as part of a narrative which accompanied our Design Development presentation for the project:

The Entry Landscape will be formal in character, serving to integrate and accent the new facility. Small flowering accent trees will frame the covered entry walkway. Foundation plantings will consist of deciduous and evergreen natives and native-analogues. Flowering perennials will accent these plantings. 

Seat-walls will line the drop-off zone and entry walk. The landscape flanking the walk will be planted using a combination of flowering perennials, bulbs, and ornamental grasses. 

The central concept of the Secure Courtyard is to accommodate a variety of uses and activities (both passive and active) for people confronting the challenges of age, dementia, and Alzheimer’s Disease. Views out from communal living and dining areas are taken into account. Ample opportunities for seating will be included. 

The large existing silk tree in the central courtyard will be protected and preserved. Given the existing condition of the tree, this effort seems warranted. 

Raised vegetable garden planters will provide residents with the opportunity to exercise motor and dexterity skills while indulging in the pleasures of raising herbs and vegetables. 

Areas of lawn will permit supervised exercise or games. 

The walkway between the two houses will be covered by a continuous pergola. 

The underlying motivation for the contemplation gardens is that views out of the patient rooms may often be a patient’s only connection with the outdoor environment. As such, views out of the windows will be framed to provide changing interest through the seasons. 

The Open Forest Contemplation Garden, located at the southwestern corner of the site, will be planted with a variety of native shrubs (both deciduous and evergreen) tolerant to both wet winter and summer drought conditions. The character of this garden will be that of an understory, open forest swale. Basalt boulder accents will reinforce the sense of a wooded, outdoor room. New tree plantings will occur primarily on the opposite (south and west) side of this garden to allow the greatest view potential into the garden from patient room windows. 

The Woodland Forest Contemplation Garden will be located on the north side of the CLC Expansion. This garden will be akin to the Open Forest model but will simulate a shady woodland setting rather than an open swale. Native and adaptive deciduous and coniferous shrubs will be used throughout the area, with deciduous and coniferous trees planted more heavily at the perimeter. 

Site Plan by Cameron McCarthy Landscape Architecture & Planning (click to enlarge)

To this point, I’ve emphasized the site design moves which are most specific to the function and meaning of a Community Living Center devoted to the care of dementia and Alzheimer’s patients. In particular, I’ve described how the Robertson/Sherwood/ Architects team melded an inspiring setting with a solution we believe will resonate on many levels. I should also point out that we looked beyond the immediate site to reinforce the larger order and geometry of the entire VA Roseburg Medical Center campus. The project will continue existing physical patterns and structures, and (we hope) embody the essential and unique spirit of the place.

Because memory care patients live in the moment, our job is to provide them with as many good moments as possible. A goal is to expand the possible range of their experiences by enlarging their frames of reference. If the outdoor spaces for the CLC Expansion project are successful, they will contribute significantly to the well-being of the residents by helping them sense the connections between themselves and all things. 

Inexperienced architects too often make the mistake of relegating design of the landscaping to the status of an afterthought. There was no way this would be the case for the CLC Expansion project. Once we had selected the site, the course the project would take was clear. To paraphrase my former professor, the late Bill Kleinsasser, the design of places for people should not only support use but also richly evoke human response and involvement; that is, provide meaning. Enlisting the power of a place vastly enriches the search for order and meaning among the many constituent systems of which any work of architecture is comprised. We were fortunate to have found inspiration in a providential confluence of program and site. We hope the corresponding design we have generated will be seen as a clear, rich, and meaningful expression of a locus amoenus.

Next in the Case Study Series: Sustainability

(1) A mandala is a concentric diagram that has spiritual and ritual significance in both Buddhism and Hinduism. According to the psychologist David Fontana, its symbolic nature can help one “to access progressively deeper levels of consciousness, ultimately assisting the mediator to experience a mystical sense of oneness with the ultimate unity from which the cosmos in all its manifold forms arises.”

(2) To protect the patients, the “open” portion of the courtyard will be secured with a fence which still allows views to the vista beyond.

(3)  Latin for“pleasant place.”

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