As large institutional buildings built in the 19th and early 20th century are deemed to no longer to be fit for purpose, the question arises of how to conserve these often monumental elements of our heritage. This is particularly challenging in the case of psychiatric hospitals, stigmatised in the collective memory and holding pasts comprising of many personal and often traumatic experiences.

With the aim of reflecting on the complex issues surrounding the sustainable future of these buildings our students were asked to study the specific case study of Whitchurch Hospital.

Opened as Cardiff City Asylum in 1908, the grade II listed complex has also been known as Cardiff City Mental Hospital, Welsh Metropolitan War Hospital and lately as Whitchurch Hospital until it closed its doors in 2016. Since then the site has remained mothballed, slowly falling into disrepair, attracting both vandals and urban explorers. Without a clear vision, the future of this site, including its 45m high water tower, a recognisable landmark on the North Cardiff horizon, remains uncertain.

During the first semester, in groups, the students studied the history, context and current situation of the site. The information was then used in the second semester to enable the students to make their own proposals for Whitchurch’s sustainable future.

Thanks to Cardiff and Vale University Health Board for allowing access, The Whitchurch Hospital Historical Society, Special Collections of the University of Bristol Library and external participants.

Discovering and learning about Whitchurch Hospital and its history was an amazing experience. Seeing how a place can hold a high heritage and communal value, helped me understand better the built heritage as more than single structures but a part of the area in which they are located.”  (Natalia Gnoinska)

“The prospect of grappling with a conservation challenge such as Whitchurch Hospital might seem to be a daunting one at first examination. Fortunately, the way that the ART504 module had been structured broke the challenge down into a series of manageable parts, provoking thought, research and investigation into a broad range of related conservation considerations. The carefully layered elements of the module cleverly combined and culminated to reveal the whole picture – similar, if you like, to the analogy of struggling with a difficult jigsaw puzzle, where the placement of the final piece ties all the smaller parts into one cohesive whole. 

The module was thoroughly enjoyable, thought provoking and wonderfully conceived to introduce the student to the numerous challenges of delivering a large scale conservation project at philosophical, academic and a practical levels.” (Lloyd  Britton)

“I really enjoyed this module and found it very interesting and engaging. It put into perspective how complex conservation of our built heritage can be. To be able to delve into a local case study such as Whitchurch hospital and understanding its past, potential and its place in the community was a great learning experience.” – (Ceris Fussell)

“This has been my favourite module on the course. It gave us the opportunity to look at a site in detail, to understand the complexities that come with conservation projects, and allowed us to be creative, with design and project planning. It was also very thought provoking and made us think more about the area we have been living in whilst at university.” (Charlotte Carver)