Shortlisted for prize, yet remarkably unusable

by Frankie Pagnacco on 23 October 2009

I noticed recently that Kentish Town Health Centre, which is my local health centre, was shortlisted for the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) Stirling Prize 2009, and I have to confess to a secret satisfaction that it didn't win.

Various articles on the awards shortlist describe it as "uplifting for both staff and patients" and ask the question "why can't all health centres be like this?" Well the answer is, because it's not that easy for people to use.

The entrance is an airy foyer rising the full three floors of the building and centres on a 'street metaphor' that runs right through the building creating, well, two entrances. So there's a problem already. I've seen people look around disorientated about which way they came in.

And the 'street metaphor' itself. If I'm ill why do I want to wait in a reception area that is a street? Wouldn't I prefer cosy, enclosed, safety?

The double entrance theme repeats in the two staircases up to the consulting rooms. Signposting is in the form of giant 'G', '1' and '2' painted on the doors so large that you don't actually notice them. I have found myself completely lost in another part of the building without realising. And I'm good with maps.

Talking of twos, there are two waiting areas, one upstairs and one ground floor but it's not clear when you should wait upstairs and when downstairs and I've seen doctors come all the way to the ground floor to pick up patients, which is surely a time waster.

One of the main features of the ground floor waiting area is a cafe which has mercifully not been open since its inception. A cafe? Around sick people? Whose bright idea was that?

Essentially the question I'm asking is, how can a building designed for human use (mostly when people are ill) be put up for a prize without actually finding out how people find using it?

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