Professor Annmarie Adams

PHOTO: OWEN EGAN

Save the Vic:
Scholar argues against razing RVH buildings


BRONWYN CHESTER | She didn't mean to get tangled up in controversy. As the architectural historian says from the safety of her loft-style office, flanked on one side by a model of the Tower of Babel, given by a student, and on the other by a Hindu capital column: "I don't usually get mixed up in contemporary battles. But this is the biggest thing that's ever happened to a building I've studied."

The building in question is the Royal Victoria Hospital and the person, Annmarie Adams is a professor of architecture and a recent invited speaker of the James McGill Society. Her topic: Modernism and Medicine: The Architectural Past and Future of Montreal's Royal Victoria Hospital.

Adams began studying the grande dame of pavilion-style hospital architecture innocently enough; the year was 1993 and she had yet to hear of the institution's planned closing.

Her interest in the Vic was part of her ongoing book project titled: Making Modern Medicine: Hospital Architecture in Montreal, 1880-1939. Her 1996 book, Architecture in the Family Way: Doctors, Houses and Women, was shortlisted by the Social Sciences and Humanities Federation for its Raymond Klibansky Scholarly Book Prize.

When Adams heard that architectural historians were hired to write a report on the history of the four hospitals to be closed in the wake of the McGill University Hospital Centre's planned "super hospital" (the RVH, Montreal General, Montreal Neurological and the Children's), she offered "to do everything," in terms of sharing her research, reading a draft and offering her comments. "But they never came back to me."

She suspects the "superhospital people" of making use of the adage: "If you want to drown the dog just say it has rabies." She isn't convinced that the consultants' contention -- that none of the RVH buildings are up to snuff in terms of being modern health care sites -- is at all accurate.

In that vein, Adams is scandalized by the fact that the consultants seem, by their report, only to have spent one day in the RVH. By contrast Adams and her research assistant, MArch student David Theodore, spent five years studying the plans of the various hospital buildings and being in the buildings, learning how they function.

Beyond the "incompetence" of the report, what irks Adams now is that its findings and recommendations not only urge that the RVH be closed, but also that the older buildings of the Vic -- the main building, built in 1894 by British architect Henry Saxon Snell and such pavilions as the built-for-luxury Ross (1918) and the Women's Pavilion (1925), both built by the famous hospital specialists Stevens and Lee -- be converted into luxury condominiums.

"The report keeps referring to all the older buildings as if they had been built at the time as the Snell [the original, most southerly building]," says Adams over the phone yesterday morning, "but the Ross and Women's function very differently as medical buildings.

"Both the Ross and the Women's are examples of historicist [i.e. built to look old] architecture when in fact the planning ideas were modern," she told the audience of 120 at the James McGill Society presentation.

Adams explained that the exteriors were designed to look homey in order to reassure patients, while, in fact, the interiors reflected specialized medical needs by offering, for instance, specialized surgical and hydrotherapy suites.

In any case, Adams argues, age alone is no reason to abandon a hospital. Such a wonderful collection of history, architecture, location, community involvement and medical facilities -- not to mention proximity to the medical school -- could be turned to McGill's advantage, Adams says. The famous American medical school, Johns Hopkins, for instance, uses its hospital, which predates the Vic, as a point of pride, a symbol of continuity and tradition, she says.

"The evolution of hospitals has been driven by architectural ideas, not medical ones," she maintains. "The germ theory and the advent of antibiotics didn't change hospital planning," she said, pointing out that in Europe, there are hospitals, such as London's St. Bartholomew's, built in 1123, that have kept pace with the evolution of medicine.

The Vic itself, she maintains, could have been considered part of the site of the superhospital whereby the old buildings would be merged with a new complex, integrating sports medicine with McGill's athletics facilities, built where the stadium now exists. [She stipulates that razing the stadium for such a purpose is not her original idea.]

Furthermore, she says, Hotel Dieu hospital (part of the Centre hospitalier de l'Université de Montréal and a site that is not being abandoned by U de M despite its being built in 1859) might also be integrated in some way to avoid duplication of service.

Conceding that plans for the superhospital are likely irreversible at this point, Adams is adamant that the report's recommendation that all buildings erected post-1950 be demolished be reconsidered. Such buildings include the RVH's surgical and medical wings, both built in the '50s by the famous modernist architect Campbell Merrett, which are exemplary of post-war modern hospital architecture.

"Taking the site back to 1949 is like destroying all the Beatles' recordings and keeping Cole Porter," says Adams, adding that the recommendation seems to go against the spirit of Parks Canada's proposed criteria for the preservation of modern architecture.

And what of the Centennial Wing, better known as the birthing centre, opened only four years ago?

Noting the important role played by philanthropists in supporting the construction of the buildings that currently comprise the MUHC, Adams questioned the values of a health centre that would demolish such a state-of-the-art building, built at a cost of $25 million, 80 percent of which came from private donations.

Determined that the buildings and grounds of the Royal Vic remain in the public domain, Adams told the audience for her presentation that her second-year design class would have the task of proposing other uses for the massive complex.

"The land and the buildings were given to the people of Montreal for a hospital," she said. Such 19th century captains of industry and banking as George Stephen and Donald Smith financed the Vic on land given by the City. "Condominiums are not acceptable; it's public land."

Needless to say, Adams' criticisms of the way in which the whole superhospital plan has proceeded haven't been warmly received in all McGill quarters. But Adams, while unnerved by it all, is not deterred. And judging by the sentiments expressed by members of the audience at her lecture, she is not alone.

As she puts it: "I didn't spend all these years studying architecture and medical history not to give my opinion."

Annmarie Adams's talk on the future of the Royal Victoria Hospital may be read in this Sunday's Gazette Magazine.