The Building

St Philips began its service in 1903 as a Poor Law workhouse, replacing a similar institution which was levelled to make way for the passage of the Kingsway boulevard. During World War I, the building served as an observational facility for refugees. And in 1919, under the auspices of the Metropolitan Asylum board, St Philips became the Sheffield Street Hospital for woman and girls with venereal disease.

During the 1930s and 40s the hospital was converted into a facility for the study and treatment of urology and nephrology. After being amalgamated into the newly formed NHS, the hospital was renamed St Philips but continued as a specialist hospital until the 1990s when it was acquired by the London School of Economics and Political Science. Many lingering elements still speak of St Philips as an educational facility of classrooms, study spaces and closed-door offices. Before long, however, a newly built student centre will occupy this site.

In line with the sanitary ideals of the era, St Philips was designed to allow an abundance of light and the free circulation of air. It boasted an innovative ventilation system and the wards were designed with what might seem, in comparison to today’s hospitals, to be a generous amount of space per bed. In many of the wards, the number of large windows equals the amount of beds. And the building’s plan reveals the architect’s attempt to maximize the surface area of the external walls.

The history of the St Philips Building evokes images of what are perhaps the most poignant archetypes of passivity – the student, the patient and the pauper. Traditionally, these characters receive and absorb from more active agents in society, the teacher, the doctor, and the philanthropist. While the residents of St Philips were beneficiaries of air and light, they were also the subjects of a particular architectural arrogance. As one Poor Law inspector put it in 1866, ‘for the purpose of ventilation, windows should be so fixed that they cannot be shut.’

Today, students, the sick and even the poor are discussed less as passive recipients than they are as a brand new kind of consumer. The accompanying architecture, in turn, reflects a new kind of circulation. The ebb and flow of the ambiguous substances in-between – the air, the light – has given way to arenas of networking, customer choice and knowledge exchange. The space in-between the student, patient and pauper is perhaps less consequential than the idea of contact. This time around, the windows are so fixed that they cannot be opened.

For an extended overview, download Katherine Wallis’ historical piece on St Philips. DOWNLOAD PDF

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