by Meghna MehtaJul 24, 2020
In a complete turn away from the meditated constructs of a hospital, an Austrian interdisciplinary collaborative formed for promoting a holistic, strong and healthy birth culture in Vorarlberg, Austria, re-envisions the birthing process by going back to its more “traditional” roots. The collaborative, IG Birth Culture A-Z, consisting of seven specialists from the fields of medicine, midwifery, psychology, trauma therapy, architecture and culture, envisages the birthing process from a seemingly different time, and repurposes it to be increasingly psychologically responsive and relaxing for the mother and the child.
The project team, comprising the visionaries of the IG Birth Culture A-Z initiative including Anka Dür (architect & midwife), Anna Heringer (architect), Martin Rauch (artist), Sabrina Summer (designer), Brigitta Soraperra (cultural worker), and Stefania Pitscheider Soraperra (Director of Women's Museum, Hittisau), concurred that the design “makes it possible to experience the influence of space and the environment on birth and health”.
Surely, the plethora of stimuli a new-born would experience upon his/her first foray into the world - light, smells, colours, temperature, textures and sounds - is bound to be overwhelming. Coupled with that, the process of childbirth can be an intense experience for the mother, both psychologically and physically. What the ‘Room for Birth and Senses’ - part of Frauenmuseum Hittisau’s 20th anniversary exhibition - essentially seeks to do is to use the experiential qualities of space, form, and material to ease the transitional process of the underling from a natural womb, to a man-made one, and to provide the mother with a sanctum in which to carry out this process, invoking a feeling of being protected and embraced.
Attempting to fuse art and architecture, the room’s form mirrors that of a “belly”, carved out like a cave in mud. The walk-in mud structure has each of its adobe bricks sponsored by over 600 donors sourced through a crowdfunding campaign that made the realisation of this vision possible. While it stands alone as a piece of art, an exhibit, for visitors to marvel at, it seeks to be part of a wider vision to prepare the ground for a “holistic consciousness” wherein spatiality and materiality influence healing processes and the process of childbirth.
As the very first spatial experience that the neonate would have after being born, it seeks to imprint its Vorarlberger legacy through a dominant smidge of the red colour and an earthy colour palette, both in the exterior and in the interior of the mud chamber. The unadorned interior of the pod is textured with refined lime Tadelakt and an earthen plaster in shades of warm ochre. A circular orifice is designed at the top of the front side, and a square one at the back to let angled warm light in, while the space itself is circumscribed by a platform for birthing and seating to allow for different positions. There is enough space on the ground to encourage standing upright, walking, sitting, kneeling or moving before the birth to facilitate the process. A similar practice of posturing as such was also followed during the construction and ideation stages to suit the anthropometrics of the space.
Located in the meadow beside the Women's Museum Hittisau, the Room for Birth and Senses is a commemorative structure that was built on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the founding of the women’s museum, the only one of its kind in the country, built in 2000. The museum was commissioned in the same building as the fire brigade house and the cultural house by local authorities from 1998-2000, and has won numerous awards for its architecture in the municipal category. The structure under discussion is part of the museum’s anniversary exhibit titled Birth Cultures, the latest among more than 30 exhibitions that the museum has held to date on subjects and issues surrounding women. In complete contrast to the more industrial look of the museum itself, the Room for Birth and Senses is completed with a ‘funny’ dress of clapboards in various red tones, and comprises a small wooden foyer for entrance into the chamber.
Anna Heringer, one of the architects of the birthing room, recalls her own experience, “When I gave birth to my daughter, I put a poster of the METI cave opposite to my bed in the hospital to be able to zoom myself in my mind into a space like that. Now it became true”. The METI cave is part of the METI School Complex in Rudrapur, Bangladesh, designed by Heringer for which she was subsequently awarded the Aga Khan Award for Architecture.
The exhibition Birth Cultures, being held at the Hittisau Women’s Museum as part of its 20th anniversary celebrations this year, of which the Room for Birth and Senses is a permanent part, was inaugurated on July 5, 2020, and will continue till April 18, 2021, for visitors and patrons.