New garden helps complex continuing care unit at TEGH to become a home

A challenging assignment – to transform a neglected, narrow fifth-floor hospital rooftop into a garden and help turn a place of residence into a home. The 75 residents of the new Complex Continuing Care Unit at Toronto East General Hospital are now discovering backyard pleasure and joy in their new terrace garden, recently completed this past September.

Design professionals and hospital administrators have extensively documented the importance of a garden to people in a hospital environment. This restorative garden emerged as an integral component of Complex Continuing Care, helping to strengthen physical, mental and spiritual health of the residents and those supporting them.

TALES of the EARTH designed the garden. In order to meet the needs of those receiving care and their caregivers, the Toronto landscape architecture firm collaborated closely with Carol Ross, Director of Complex Continuing Care, a committee of hospital staff members and Parkin Architects, responsible for designing the interior of the unit.

Particular objectives were to be met for the garden to stand as a physical expression of the Vision Statement for Complex Continuing Care – provide a home in a safe, caring environment; one that respects and values the diversity of residents and their support network; a place in which to reconstruct a sense of reassurance and restoration of confidence gained through healthful aging; a landscape providing spaces for both privacy and interaction with others.

Exploring various design alternatives, the landscape architecture firm developed numerous sketches and drawings of garden concepts and schemes. The collaboration produced a design vocabulary that spoke to the various historical and cultural traditions brought by the residents from their homelands to Complex Continuing Care. The conversation became apparent through the richness of spaces and details, giving unique depth of character and meaning to the spirit of this garden.

During construction, TALES of the EARTH worked closely with landscape contractor Somerville Construction, and steel fabricator Magus Corporation, to assure that the exacting drawings of the design were transformed into an elegant garden.

Two richly coloured steel pavilions, positioned at either end, frame the garden. Their design was inspired by two very differing and significant sets of memories. The first, from residents’ remembrance of growing up amidst rich multi-layered architectural details of churches and other familiar structures of their “old countries.” The second, from stories told by hospital historian Jill Robertson of gatherings under the huge old weeping willow tree where nurses used to hang out, their clandestine picking of vegetables from the hospital greenhouse and other escapades. Both the willow and the greenhouse were taken down years ago during previous hospital expansions. The landscape architects sought to revive some aspects of the residents’ and nurses’ personal history in the garden.

The yellow-ochre Tent at the north end is for active social gatherings, playing cards and outdoor eating. It’s like sitting under the old willow, branches etched into the paving. The dome of the light-blue Temple at the south end has a shape similar to spiritual temples found throughout the world – places where residents’ had likely sought refuge. The temple is for more private family visits where people can sit under shelter. Underneath the garden’s elegant dome, its “eye” open to the sky, people feel nestled and secure.

At night, the pavilions glow with a gentle warm illumination from within. The garden is well lit for use at night yet designed so residents can still see the stars.

The warmly coloured dry-laid sandstone walls of the planting beds hold the path. The path, weaving from one pavilion to the other, is wide enough for two wheelchairs to easily pass. It gently changes orientation like the “seen and hidden” technique used in Japanese stroll gardens, so that the garden is experienced as something larger than it truly is, yet clearly defined so residents always know just where they are.

Next to the temple is the Piazza, its shape inspired by the plan of Piazza Navonna in Rome. Within a pair of Tuscan-red semi-circular trellises in the middle of the piazza sits a shallow teal-blue tiled table pond. The pond is high enough for residents, sitting in their wheelchairs, to splash their fingers through the water.

Garden plants were chosen to rejoice in the memories of both the residents’ native lands, as well as their homes on the streets neighbouring the hospital before their moving to Complex Continuing Care. Climbing vines, roses and grapes, fruiting plants, aromatic and flowering perennials, herbs and shrubs were also chosen for their home-like setting, and their ability to survive under difficult rooftop conditions.

The garden is one in which the residents of Complex Continuing Care have begun calling their own backyard. Residents have already planted tulip bulbs in the beds and the first birthday party was recently held. The result is a garden that stimulates the senses and will be enjoyed by residents, staff and visitors for many years to come.