Architecture

Anthony Clarke’s designs for people with complex needs create “holding spaces” where difficult feelings can take place. By Naomi Stead.

Anthony Clarke’s architecture of care

A design drawing for Taylor Ryan’s dwelling.
A design drawing for Taylor Ryan’s dwelling.
Credit: BLOXAS

Consider the phrase “holding space”. It’s a curious socio-linguistic artefact – an escapee from the therapist’s suite, now fallen in with the activist and wellness crowds and increasingly appearing everywhere, especially online. It’s been used to mean a range of things: from bearing witness, to exercising non-judgemental compassion, to practising deep listening without jumping to solutions. But in essence it’s the creation of a supportive space to share another’s emotional vulnerability: enabling difficult feelings to take place.

Some commentators have dismissed such “casual therapy speak” as woke pseudo-psychological jargon, “the language of the privileged and well-moisturised”. But in fact “holding space” has a legitimate history in the work of D. W. Winnicott – the paediatrician and psychoanalyst who, in the mid-20th century, wrote about the “holding environment” as a space of emotional nurturing in which the very young child is supported to develop a sense of self and the ability to engage with the world. In this conception, the role of the therapist is to (re) produce this space in the present.

But isn’t this also one of the tasks of architecture – to contain and protect, to hold in a supportive embrace? Don’t architects also “hold space”? Why yes, sometimes they do.

Anthony Clarke specialises in working alongside people with complex needs, particularly those living with mental and neurological disorders. Since 2012, under the auspices of his Melbourne-based practice BLOXAS, Clarke has been working on residential and other specialised projects with clients negotiating neurodiversity, cognitive impairment, sensory perception issues, chronic illness and trauma.

Some have called his work “therapeutic architecture” but Clarke is uncomfortable with this term because it seems to imply something positive, pleasant, optional – an extra. For his clients, these design interventions are not luxuries: they’re crucial means to an improved quality of life.

Clarke prefers instead to describe his practice as working within an ethic of care. He is disarmingly open about the ambiguities surrounding such a practice, describing how in the beginning he was deeply uncertain of his role as an architect and position as an able-bodied outsider. Back then, he says, “I really had no idea. I was just finding it really interesting, thinking about how to design for such complex needs ... I had no idea of my own emotional state, or how to treat it like a different kind of project – which is what I’d do now.”

What he’d do now up-ends the conventions of architectural delivery: with longer timelines, more research, more collaboration and much less emphasis on the finished product. These “might look like regular projects, but they’re really very different in terms of the process”, Clarke says. “They’re not so much about the built outcome, or the outcome isn’t what drives the whole project.” The process itself becomes the point: in any case these projects may never be “complete”, requiring ongoing attunement, sometimes over years.

One of Clarke’s early designs was for Brett Lockwood – a client who has, for the past 50-odd years, lived with a chronic sleep disorder as the after-effect of severe childhood trauma. Lockwood can comfortably rest in a room only with an absolute guarantee of total silence and total darkness. His project, as part of a larger extension to an existing house, was for a small, highly specialised sleeping and working space.

The result, designed in close and intense collaboration – notionally completed in 2017 although with many ongoing tweaks – is a room that can be literally clamped shut. Pivoting sections of wall converge to cover its corner window and are cinched and strapped together until, when Brett wakes, he ritually opens the shutters to engage with the garden. Along with thickly insulated walls, multiple acoustic seals, internal “airlock” double doors and so on, the design has created the kind of reliably dark and quiet room which, Lockwood says, has contributed to changing his life.

More recently, Clarke was engaged to design a house for a family whose son had recently been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. At the time, they were still coming to terms with the diagnosis and assessing how great a role it would play in the design brief. Eventually these considerations – particularly their son’s need to seek out sensory experiences – became central to the project. What transpired was a home that offers opportunities for sensory self-regulation and relief by stimulating sight, touch and smell. It does this through a material palette that’s eclectic, to say the least: highly textured recycled-brick walls, pressed-tin ceilings, timber, glass blocks, exposed plumbing and various landscape elements including fragrant plants. The point is that this project doesn’t frame “sensory seeking” behaviour from a “deficit” standpoint, as a disorder to be managed and accommodated, but rather as an opportunity, something to be embraced in architectural as well as human terms.

Clarke’s approach is not just about practicalities. It’s also about supporting an occupant’s sense of independence, autonomy, privacy and self-esteem. An example still under development is a specialised dwelling for Taylor Ryan. A bright and independent young woman, Ryan’s life changed dramatically when she developed myalgic encephalomyelitis in her early 20s. She now lives with this complex, debilitating disease, and is cared for full-time by her father and stepmother.

As part of the briefing process Ryan completed a “routine and ritual mapping” exercise – essentially a detailed report of how she spends her days. I read this, with permission, and it’s a confronting account: 22-23 hours per day in bed, naps every two hours, half a day spent gathering the energy for the weekly shower; an endless cycle of heat packs, icepacks, medications, meals in bed, arduous journeys to the kitchen. Ryan describes the precise harbouring and allotment of energy, the management of essential tasks to minimise exhaustion and maximise small moments of pleasure.

I am struck by how the world has shrunk for this young woman, how it exists, at present, almost entirely in one room. The scale of the design project accordingly draws in, becoming close and highly detailed. Clarke’s micro-level design of a window seat, for example – carefully located in relation to the bed and bathroom fixtures, made accessible with precisely placed grab bars, framing a particular view and aspect – will be a major feature, allowing Ryan to look out, feeling the sun on her skin.

It’s long been accepted that empathy is a defining element of design practice. It’s empathy that characterises design’s status as a “third culture” alongside the sciences and the humanities – or so the design theorist Nigel Cross has famously argued. If the sciences value objectivity, rationality and “truth”, he muses, and the humanities value subjectivity, imagination and “justice”, then the values of design culture are “practicality, ingenuity, empathy and a concern for “appropriateness”.

In architectural education, various methods are used to instil empathy, in order to understand how the built environment disables some people even as it enables others. But architecture has also been guilty of naivety and sentimentality, of the worst effects of good intentions. It has a long tradition of paternalism, of presuming the right to make decisions on others’ behalf. A better way, in fact, is to talk to people: to understand lived experience as a true form of expertise.

Clarke says his ultimate aim is to work on these kinds of projects at a larger scale, something akin to his newest work, a collaboration with Kerstin Thompson Architects, now almost completed in Melbourne’s north. A child and family health centre, this will be a facility for children up to the age of 11 who have experienced negative or traumatic events, to stay with their families and receive care in a therapeutic but non-hospital environment.

In projects embodying an ethic of care, the architect must redesign the design process itself – moving beyond designing for to designing with. It’s not simple, of course: who pays for all this time, research and emotional labour? Who can afford to pay? Still, the possibilities of a more caring built environment seem myriad: to contain and maintain, to remediate and repair, to hold space for those who need it.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 22, 2022 as "A room of one’s own".

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