Pulling Together

Dr. Peter Centre AIDS Hospice, Vancouver, British Columbia
Neale Staniszkis Doll Adams Architects

The Dr. Peter Centre’s specific context is not typical of Vancouver’s West End, which has a high residential density. It is situated near the north-east corner of Mole Hill at Comox and Thurlow streets, a four-acre block of Edwardian and Victorian homes recently restored as co-operative housing by Hotson Bakker Boniface Haden Architects. The building negotiates the transition between the large brick masses of St. Paul’s Hospital to the east with its turn-of-the- century homes, Nelson Park, and a mix of apartment buildings to the west.

The design of the Centre is a mix of new construction and restoration. Formally, there is a duality between the new four-storey structure and the heritage-designated house built in 1906, which are connected tentatively by a glazed link. The new building takes some cues from the details and scale of the surrounding post-war housing, but to keep the Comox streetscape intact the main level of the new construction is elevated to the same height as the existing homes and the new entrance porch echoes their massing.

In tandem with the redevelopment of the rest of Mole Hill, the street faade of the existing home has been restored to its original materials and colours including the square-shaped turret, an abnormality which the heritage consultants could not conclusively dismiss as a later addition. Viewed from the alley, the back of the house is a different animal altogether. From a heritage standpoint, the rear faade of the existing house had already been compromised by a later addition, so the architects removed the structure and added an extension that plays with different shapes and colours to leave no doubt about what is contemporary.

Inside, the house’s character is kept largely intact by assigning programmatic elements requiring the least amount of compromise to the original spaces. The executive offices and a meeting room on the main floor did not require any major modifications to the existing sitting room, while bedrooms on the second floor, in keeping with their original use, became nap rooms. To meet current code requirements a new stair was built to access the second floor. Again, the architects treated the insertion in a modern idiom, adding new forms and materials rather than attempting to recreate a false history. The existing house and the new building are kept distinct architecturally by the use of a glazed link between them that almost disappears visually, but continuity between the spaces is maintained by hardwood flooring removed from the old house and re-used in the link. Views are mediated through the layers of glass, thereby keeping patients out of direct scrutiny without completely shutting out the public.

Along with balancing old and new, the building’s design had to strike a compromise between the institutional and domestic demands for the building. Modern facilities were necessary, but the patients also had to feel at home. In the 24 patient suites located on the third and fourth floors, the texture and colour of exposed concrete plays against the blonde wood of the built-in furniture. On the exterior, the curtain wall of the top three floors is contrasted at grade by a long brick planter that softens the faade with greenery while providing a buffer to the adjacent street. In a gesture of welcome to the community, the planter turns the corner and ends in a small concrete bench facing the park.

This detail is symptomatic of the Dr. Peter AIDS Foundation’s aims of not only providing the necessary supportive environment to the patients who will use the facility, but to make a contribution to their community as well. The Foundation was named after Peter Jepson-Young, a physician in the community who was living with AIDS. Dr. Peter brought public awareness of the effects of the disease through a weekly television program that revealed his personal struggle with AIDS in detail over the last two years of his life. Along with the Dr. Peter AIDS Foundation which spearheaded the project, the building was funded jointly by B.C. Housing and the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority.

The West End site had initially been chosen by the Foundation for its proximity to Vancouver’s gay community, but more recently the demographic of patients has shifted to be predominantly downtown intravenous drug users. When the Dr. Peter AIDS Foundation was established as a non-profit organization in 1995, the problems of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and the need for a care facility for patients living with AIDS were un-connected. As the project slowly took shape the programmatic requirements had to change dramatically to accommodate the new user group. Showers, telephones, and lockers were added for the use of day patients who may otherwise not have had access to such basic amenities. After several meetings with potential user-groups the program for the Dr. Peter Centre was expanded to include a gym, a sound proof music room, complimentary therapy rooms, a generous outdoor veranda, and a safe injection site.

If the Dr. Peter Centre seems to tower over the rest of Mole Hill, there is a reason. There were considerable program elements to fit into a tight site. Its height is not unprecedented for the block either; it was conceived as one-half of a bookend to the seven-storey Strathmore Lodge apartment building at the far end of the block.

A true understanding of the needs of the facility was developed through the initial design and construction of an interim facility also designed by Neale Staniszkis Doll Adams Architects in St. Paul’s Hospital, located across the street. The Dr. Peter Centre is unique in its combination of long-term patient care with outpatient services and community outreach.

The building sets a precedent for a new model of health care delivery to those living with HIV/AIDS, and, at the same time, the project’s limited budget, complex program, tight site, and surrounding urban design and heritage issues make such a balanced architectural solution even more commendable.

Client: Dr. Peter AIDS Foundation

Architect team: Larry Adams, Wanda Felt, Garth Ramsey, Mary Tong, Mike Nelson

Structural: John Bryson and Partners

Mechanical: DEC Design

Landscape: Durante Kreuk

Interiors: Robert Ledingham

Contractor: Stuart Olson Constructors Inc.

Acoustics: Brown Strachan

Area: 1,204 m2

Budget: $6.1 million

Completion: October 2003

Photography: Derek Lepper

Helena Grdadolnik, M. Arch., MRAIC is a sessional instructor at the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design and the Vancouver correspondent for Canadian Architect.