City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

Read the introduction to this series

Part of the philosophy of a more ‘active’ birth is to change the space around you. It’s a sculpting of the environment to help the birth, and involves creating an atmosphere which is less obviously about medical intervention. This isn’t an easy trick to pull off in a hospital, which is a building pretty clearly defined around medical intervention. And particularly difficult in an old hospital.

So your heart goes out to the brave midwives of the Bloomsbury Birthing Centre. It’s at one end of a wing on the first floor of Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, almost directly opposed to the labour ward at the other end, spatially and philosophically. They’ve done all they can to make sure that the lights are dimmed, the rooms are warm, that they are as free of medical equipment as it is safe to be, and that the walls are painted with soft colours and decorated with posters.

Despite the fact that a hospital ward is entirely visible ‘underneath’ these attempts at cloaking it, this does actually help, and we’re momentarily disappointed when the birth actually has to take place in the labour ward across the corridor. The disappointment fades quickly and completely after Oliver is born, as it seems parents swiftly move on from the details of birth if everyone involved emerges healthy and happy.

But the philosophies behind the Bloomsbury Birthing Centre, and those related approaches from the active birth movement, are to be applauded and supported. There are numerous progressive aspects to their approach, which doesn’t deny the benefits and safety of medicine at all – indeed, both would say if you want or need an epidural, syntocinon drip, or ventouse extraction, say, then go for it – but simply puts the woman more in control of the birth, rather than it being more akin to an operation. And the interesting thing for this piece is that this includes shaping the environment you give birth in, from the moment you arrive in hospital, to when you leave.

Hearing talk of the importance of dark, warm environments to a positive birth experience, I remember a passage from Japanese author Junichiro Tanizaki’s 1933 essay ‘In Praise of Shadows’:

"I have always thought that hospitals, those for the Japanese at any rate, need not be so sparkling white, that the walls, uniforms, and equipment might be better done in softer, more muted colours. Certainly the patients would be more reposed where they are able to lie on tatami matting surrounded by the sand-coloured walls of a Japanese room. One reason we hate to go to the dentist is the scream of his drill; but the excessive glitter of glass and metal is equally intimidating … (H)ad modern medicine been developed in Japan we probably would have devised facilities and equipment for the treatment of the sick that would somehow harmonize with Japanese architecture. Here again we have come off the loser for having borrowed."

Much has changed since 1933, not least the idea of the Japanese as borrowers of technology. Yet can we see an attempt, albeit inadvertently, to return to the "softer, more muted colours" and darker hues of the spaces Tanizaki described? Synthesising this with highly advanced medical technology that Tanizaki could only have dreamt of would be interesting.

It seems to me more could be done in this area – which would be a fascinating multidisciplinary conversation between obstetrics, interior design and architecture, as well as the end users. For now, it’s a case of posters, paint and dimming the lights. It’s a start.


Other pieces in this series:
A birth, in 13 places

1. Scan; Private clinic, Harley Street, Central London
2. Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital, UCLH, Huntley Street, Central London
3. Active Birth Centre, Tufnell Park, North London
4. Antenatal classes; 1A Roseberry Avenue, Central London
5. Bloomsbury Birthing Centre, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital, UCLH, Huntley Street, Central London
6. Delivery Room 1, Labour Ward, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital, UCLH, Huntley Street, Central London
7. A&E, UCLH Main Building, Gower Street, Central London
8. Amenity Room 6, Nixon Suite, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital (part of UCH), Huntley Street, Central London
9. Café Deco, Store Street, Central London
10. Transitional Care Unit, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital (UCLH), Huntley Street, Central London
11. Home, Gower Mews, Central London
12. Bloomsbury, Central London
13. Registry Office, Camden Town Hall, Central London


One response to “A birth, in 13 places:5. Bloomsbury Birthing Centre, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital, UCLH, Huntley Street, Central London”

  1. gina augarde Avatar
    gina augarde

    please – can any one give me some good examples of outstanding colours/ decor for a birthing centre???!
    Thank you x


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