Wellcome Collection presents Living with Buildings, a major exhibition exploring the pivotal role of architecture and urban planning in human health

'Living with Buildings' takes over both of the museum’s temporary exhibition spaces to examine how the structures that surround us shape our mental and physical health, in both positive and negative ways.

From Dickensian slums to high-rise towers, and infirmary tents to modernist sanatoriums, the exhibition charts how architects, planners and designers have impacted the health and wellbeing of communities and individuals. Featuring buildings designed by Lubetkin, Goldfinger and Aalto, and the work of artists including Camille Pissarro, Andreas Gursky and Giles Round, it considers how the built environment reflects wider priorities in politics and society.  

In a world where people increasingly live in metropolitan areas and spend more time than ever indoors, ‘Living with Buildings’ opens with the impact of urbanisation on sanitation in Victorian London. Dickens’ introduction to ‘Oliver Twist’ (1850) highlights the living conditions of the poor, and the connections between housing, health and inequality. Pissarro’s painting of Bedford Park in Chiswick (1897) illustrates the creation of suburbs for the wealthy, while the Garden City Movement offered an escape from London’s crowded and inhospitable streets. Maps and plans of ideal towns, such as Bournville in Birmingham and Saltaire near Bradford, reveal the motives of the philanthropic factory owners who built them for their workers.

The exhibition also explores the rise and decline of tower blocks, showing early intentions to build a modern and healthy way of living in post-war Britain. Works by Rachel Whiteread and Shona Illingworth examine the impact that later disrepair and demolition has on communities. Erno Goldfinger’s designs for Balfron Tower (1965) and notebooks from his time living there are shown with a 2014 film by artist Rab Harling responding to plans to develop the building for private use. A series of Tony Ray-Jones photographs of the high-rise Pepys estate in Deptford (1970), and Gursky’s 'Paris, Montparnasse' (1993) are displayed alongside a film by artist Martha Rosler, asking ‘How do we know what home looks like?’ (1993). Material relating to the recent tragic fire at Grenfell Tower in London is an urgent reminder of the need to provide secure, safe housing for all.

A scale model of a 1930s hospital demonstrates the design principles that have continued to inspire modern hospitals and other therapeutic spaces, in contrast to earlier smallpox tents and small cottage infirmaries. The exhibition shows archive photographs and footage of experimental health clinics in Peckham and Finsbury, reflecting on attempts to improve the health and living conditions of London’s residents, with a focus on community and prevention.

Plans and photographs of internationally renowned architect Alvar Aalto’s sanatorium in Paimio, Finland, show how he was guided by clinical need and the requirements of tuberculosis patients. One of the earliest examples of functional building design, it was considered a medical instrument in and of itself. Artist Giles Round draws on the colours used in Aalto’s sanatorium, as well as 20th-century factory guidance in a new commission throughout the gallery exploring how colour and light influences mood and wellbeing. Architectural models of Maggie’s Centres from across the UK also show the importance of environment for healing, with each unique building designed to create a supportive space for those living with cancer.

Wellcome Collection’s Gallery 2 is devoted to a major commission, containing a mobile health clinic built at full scale. Designed for Doctors of the World by Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners with BuroHappold and ChapmanBDSP, the Global Clinic demonstrates how architecture can respond to a worldwide issue in health today. Visitors will have the opportunity to see the first complete version of the Global Clinic in the gallery, which will be deployed for use in a location where it is needed immediately following its presentation at Wellcome Collection. 

A new book by Iain Sinclair, inspired by the exhibition, is published by Wellcome Collection and Profile Books. In ‘Living with Buildings and Walking with Ghosts’, Sinclair embarks on a series of journeys – through London, Mexico, Marseilles and the Outer Hebrides – to explore the conflicted relationships between sickness and structure.

Notes to Editors 

Wellcome Collection is a free museum and library for the incurably curious. Inspired by the medical objects and curiosities collected by Henry Wellcome, it connects science, medicine, life and art. Through its exhibitions, live programming, and digital and publishing activity, it makes thought-provoking content which aims to challenge how we think and feel about health. wellcomecollection.org  

Wellcome Collection is part of Wellcome, a global charitable foundation that exists to improve health for everyone by helping great ideas to thrive. Both politically and financially independent, we support scientists and researchers, take on big problems, fuel imaginations and spark debate. wellcome.ac.uk