Designing a Better Death

  • 2016-01-07
  • OZY

Cold, antiseptic hospitals; rooms filled with beeping machines; warehouses of people nearing their ends. Why on earth must we die in such ugly places? That’s the big question that Rotterdam-based architect Alison Killing asked at TED Global in Rio de Janeiro last year. Plugging into a big, timely conversation about what it means to approach death, Killing threw her discipline’s hat into the ring: Architects, she says, can help people die better. She talked to OZY about the birth, growth and future of her big idea.

Killing tells us she didn’t have a single guiding idea telescoping her work in the beginning. “I liked to make things,” she says — apt enough for an architect. Most of her colleagues, Killing says, aspire to build gleaming galleries or gorgeous libraries, but they don’t “generally graduate wanting to build hospitals,” she concedes. So she was doing her project-by-project thing, making Europe prettier, thinking about cities and built environments. But budding all around her was a conversation about death across all fields. Pew Research Center tells us the number of people older than 65 will triple by around 2050. And while people in some disciplines — like urban design and health policy — have been thinking about our aging population for a while, architects like Killing were just starting to figure out their place in things.

Take, for instance, Maggie’s Centres, designed with the motto “People with cancer need places like these.” Maggie’s Centres was founded 20 years ago in memory of Maggie Keswick Jencks, a landscape designer whose husband was an architecture critic. The U.K. buildings are sweet, warm and designed by fancy architects like Frank Gehry. What of hospices and hospitals — where more and more patients are dying? Some 1.5 million Americans entered hospice in 2013 in the U.S., according to the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization. Those aren’t as nice as they could be. Christopher Shaw, director of the U.K.-based firm Medical Architecture, calls them, in fact, “fairly ignominious” places to pass away.