In August we visited Copenhagen and saw an incredible show of the Danish artist Poul Gernes at the Louisiana Museum. At that show I learned that Gernes designed an entire hospital in Denmark, called Herlev, that maintains its colorful interiors from the 1970s. I’d never seen such a colorful hospital! This video, sent to me by my friend Sofie, shows the incredible impact of color in the hospital experience. Gernes was originally commissioned to paint just the lobby, but was subsequently asked to add color to the whole building, including the patient rooms.
The colors cheer me up and indicate that there’s a world outside where these colors can be found.
Gernes described his work in the hospital as having an artistic function as well as an atmospheric one. By atmospheric, what Gernes really meant was that color played an almost structural role, helping people find their way and maintain their bearings in the space. Color breaks the uniformity, the monotony of similar spaces that repeat over and over again. It’s striking for me how much uniformity seems to be an unwritten design rule in institutional spaces, and yet how terrible uniformity is for the inhabitants of a space. Large, uniform spaces are incredibly disorienting, offering no landmarks to aid navigation, and they numb the senses. As Gernes describes, color is an easy way to address these structural issues.
“Colors cheer me up because you need them in here,” says Palle Asger Jorn, a leukemia patient at Herlev. “You experience very emotional situations here, when everything is horrible and you don’t feel like going on. The colors cheer me up and indicate that there’s a world outside where these colors can be found, and that’s why I’m here. So I can go out an experience those colors again, and not be here forever.”