Special Project – Mental Health and Hospital Design

This was a special photography project that was conceived over two years with the participation of volunteers from St. Joseph’s Health Centre in Toronto. It has been one of the most personally meaningful projects I have ever worked on.

Louise Hucal, a Foundation Board member, was central to the project and helped it come to fruition. It was because of her help and guidance that the project became an exhibition and I owe her everything in helping me bring this idea to life.


A contemporary photography exhibit exploring the impact of institutional architecture on people living with mental illness.

Project Statement:

The design of hospitals is a complex process. A lot of people are at the table. There are architects, engineers, contractors, medical staff and administrators. Supporting the table is history, culture, politics and money.  Each decade has seen these people develop their own patient care innovation, each assuming they know best. Sunlight, views and fresh air were replaced by efficiency, sterility and climate control. At the centre of this big table, but oddly absent from the conversation, is the patient. The person for whom we build them. When we are in distress, we go to hospitals. They are a physical manifestation of our society’s responsibility to care for people. I believe they should be better. I decided to ask the person at the centre of the table. This project is what I heard.

St. Joe’s Health Centre in Toronto is on an enviable site. It looks south to Lake Ontario and is surrounded on all other sides by a thriving, diverse residential neighbourhood. It is comprised of several different buildings, built in different eras, each wearing its healthcare innovations on its sleeve. The Mental Health Emergency Services Unit is in one of the oldest buildings. It is the ‘front door’ to the Mental Health services at St. Joe’s. With an opportunity to re-design their environment in the next year, they were supportive of trying something different.


We all physically react to architecture. We see. Or we don’t. We hear. We hear too much. We feel temperature.  Too cold or too hot. We smell bad things. Not enough good. Windows, doors, walls, floors, ceilings, lights, furniture, heating, cooling. With these considerations in mind, I began by listening to former and current patients about what they felt when they were in the unit. After these conversations, I took my camera into the unit to try and document what I had heard. I then asked my patient volunteers another question – where do you feel your best? Can you show me where you feel most grounded? What is that place like? Each place was different. Some were rooms, some furniture, some outside. What seemed to be common was the ability of each person to clearly articulate the way in which that place provided an internal equilibrium of spirit. A restfulness. A peace.

My final step was to bring these places back into the hospital, and photograph them together. The final piece of this project will see these contrasting photographs installed for the exhibition.

They offer a voice to the people at the centre of the table.

A loud voice that is full of hope and the joy that comes from being heard.



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