The eyes are the windows to the soul – Archiprix 2024 – 1e prijs

Being diagnosed with early onset macular neo-vascularisation, Gavin McGee Fraser graduation project challenges the prescribed notions of care architecture for the visually impaired through the reuse of an abandoned complex of sugar warehouses and harbours in Greenock, Scotland.

Gavin McGee Fraser - The eyes are the windows to the soul - Archiprix 2024

The new care complex is situated within the grounds of the James Watt Dock – a new abandoned former sugar depot. The new approach to care for the visually impaired results in two clusters of programme; the reinvented clinical centre (for medical interventions), and the additional social centre for additional care focusing around mental wellbeing, sense of purpose, and fostering wider community interaction. Due to the public and communal nature of the social programme, it is placed within the existing warehouses, which are positioned along the main road. The clinical programme, which required more privacy and emotional/ physical escape, is situated on one of the existing docks, which is transformed into a peninsula. Between the clinical and social programme, another quayside is repurposed as a transitionary park. The layout of the complex is designed to promote safe and intuitive navigation in combination with moments to be alone and within a wider community.

Can you (briefly) explain your choice of subject?
The topic of my project – visual impairment – has a significant level of personal importance to me. Although visual impairment and blindness affects predominantly the elderly, it can also affect young people. I have early onset macular neo-vascularisation. It started in September 2019 as a small blind spot in the central vision of my left eye, which every day for the following 3 months would increase in size. I became scared to open my eyes in the morning because of the fear I had lost more vision. I am still suffering from the mental and physical effects of my new visual impairment. From small things, such as my inability to catch objects when thrown, to greater fears, progressive vision loss is damaging in numerous aspects of daily life. Regardless, the traumatic process of losing my vision and having to adapt mentally and physically to a deteriorating vision was challenging, exhausting, and unsupported. At the time, I received a flyer with some light advice about life as a visually impaired person. It is not enough, and I believed that architecture could be a key reconciler.

What or who are your sources of inspiration, and can you briefly explain this?
The greatest source of inspiration for me during this project was the people that I interacted with during my extensive research into the topics of visual impairment and abandoned architecture within the city of Greenock, Scotland. What I discovered was that these two seemingly distinct topics suffered from many of the same challenges. In particular, they shared a sense of loss and grieving, both in terms of vision, and also in terms of culturally sensitive pieces of architecture that lay deteriorating after the collapse of the cities sugar industry. I found that both the culturally significant abandoned buildings in the city (in my project the James Watt Sugar Sheds), and the many visually impaired people were searching for a sense of purpose and belonging within the wider community. This context inspired me to try and address these shared challenges through a new architectural intervention.

Gavin McGee Fraser - The eyes are the windows to the soul - Archiprix 2024

The existing building, and its sheltering colonnade, is used as inspiration for the connective circulation around the plan. Between the clinical programme, central park, and new clinical facility, a single sensory covered walkway is placed. The singular nature of this bridge allows for less confusion regarding multiple entrances and exits (a common complaint with current eye hospital architecture), and incorporates several reflection points along its length. The relative distance between the programmed elements in the plan allow greater time for transitioning, preparing, and reflecting between experiences.

State and (briefly) describe the key moment in your graduation project.
The most critical moment in the development of the project was the point in which the research, interviews and site visits I had spent half a year conducting began to solidify into objective and traceable results, and wherein patterns began to emerge. For example, through discussions with the visually impaired, I was able to narrow in on 10 physical designed principles that can be used to navigate and understand a space from various visual disabilities. Concurrently, on site I was able to identify several themes, including temperature, air movement, and aroma that overlapped with the experiences of the visually impaired. These moments of realization and pattern were very exciting and allowed me to leverage elements of the location which I may have otherwise dismissed or ignored.

Can you (briefly) explain what design(ing) means to you?
Designing for me is a balance between questioning certain preconceived conclusions, understandings, and knowledge about a place, object, material, or context, and how we can then manifest the conclusions of these questions through a product – be that a building, a text, or any other artform. In particular, when designing I often challenge myself to have conversations with various stakeholders, and to take everything with a pinch of salt – including how we currently teach and talk about design/ architecture. As far as possible, when designing I always want to find objectivity within the architectural field, which is naturally very subjective.

What do you want to achieve as a designer in the near the distant future?
As my appreciation of the design profession evolves year on year, I cannot say at this moment what kind of designer I will be in the future, or the things in which I will want to achieve. That being said, I do not see that as a limitation, rather a reflection of how the design professions within the built environment must evolve to respond to pressing environmental and social needs. Therefore, the greatest achievement I can foresee as a designer in the long term is maintaining an openness and willingness to explore these evolving landscapes, and to react accordingly, and with enthusiasm.

Gavin McGee Fraser - The eyes are the windows to the soul - Archiprix 2024

The Eye hospital sits on a secluded peninsula with excellent natural views out towards the river Clyde. The new clinical programme is designed around a central simple loop walkway and sensory garden. This loop is derived from the Scottish water building typology; “Crannog”. Traditional clinical eye care programme (Admin, reception, waiting areas, testing, consultation, surgery. Accommodation) are positioned off of this single route, reducing the complexity of the wayfinding around the plan, a common criticism of current eye hospital design. Furthermore, all programme is positioned on one level, reducing the need to change levels. In addition to the classical programming, 2 new approached are introduced to supplement the plan. The first entails a consolidation of all waiting areas (typically separate) into a single communal heart. This space is like a second home, allowing for a more relaxed and convivial environment between treatments and consultations. The second, is the placement of “escape” and rest areas. When a situation is becoming too heavy, these spaces offer a safe place for people to be alone within the clinical grounds to process challenging moments.

Project text
Situated on the water’s edge of Greenock, Scotland, is the project; “the eyes are the windows to the soul”. The project challenges the prescribed notions of care architecture for the visually impaired through the reuse of an abandoned complex of sugar warehouses and harbours within a city scarred by high rates of visually impaired people, caused by the long-lost sugar industry.

Approximately 253m people suffer globally from visual impairments. Currently, care for the visually impaired focuses exclusively on the physical visual condition of the sufferer and how its mechanics can be addressed. This placates the physical problem but leaves much to be desired regarding the litany of mental health issues associated with visual impairment, which are rarely addressed. These issues fall into two primary categories. The first is a direct consequence of diagnostics, testing, treatment, and oppressive clinical architecture. The second regards a more expansive social sphere, where visually impaired people suffer from social isolation, loss of purpose, loss of income, the inability to carry out basic tasks, and a loss of self.

This project addresses these current shortcomings in care, by proposing a new combination of clinical and social responses. Through a new hospital architecture, the patient’s mental well-being is placed equal with the clinical aspects of care. To do so, this project redefines how we look at the traditional eye hospital architecture by incorporating spaces to escape, reflect, socialize and grieve in the backdrop of an accessible and communal village. This new hospital will establish new approaches to managing the treatment, testing, diagnostic and clinical architecture challenges we face today.

Parallel, a new social centre is created to supplement the new clinical approach. This new centre is an experimental ecosystem of alternative and physical forms of therapy; through providing therapies focusing on art, music, horticulture and movement, several social issues associated with visual impairments can be addressed. These activities manifest themselves through several architectural interventions: spaces for physical therapy and tuition in a semi-private environment, coupled with highly public spaces for dialogue, exhibition, performance and social interaction within the wider community. Concurrent with the eye hospitals relative introversion, the social programme forms the public face of the total plan. The social foundation of this plan is designed to encourage a sense of self, accomplishment, and a sense of purpose. A facet of this is the exposure of the visually impaired community to the wider public and creating valuable opportunities for education and financial independence.

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Gavin McGee Fraser - The eyes are the windows to the soul - Archiprix 2024

The new social centre is situated within the existing sugar sheds – the new public interface of the project. The sectional strategy of the intervention utilises the central railway channel as a new “high-street”, with programme connected off this avenue. Public functions are situated along the ground floor and existing colonnade, and more private studio and expressive spaces are situated on the first floor. Circulation space, where needed, is designed to allow for an easy transition between the public face of the building (within the colonnade), and the more private studies towards the rear. Staircases are only positioned aligned with the existing windows – creating a lit guide for people of partial vision; where they can literally “follow the light”. The strategic placement of Architecture continues a light tough. The floor structure of the sugar sheds is designed to support tonnes of weight, therefore the interventions do not have their own foundations – the top layer of cobbles are removed and the interventions placed on the floor surface. As with the hospital walls, thermal walls are introduced to create a temperature differential.

Gavin McGee Fraser

start graduation
September 2021

5 October 2022

Academie van Bouwkunst Amsterdam

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