Fantasy Island

Dan Pearlman creates a refuge in a children’s psychiatric ward in Berlin.

Nurse Ratched would not walk these halls. In the new children’s psychiatric ward at Evangelisches Königin Elisabeth Herzberge Hospital, in Berlin, exuberant colors flash over beanbag chairs, and graphics of birds and sea critters skitter up the walls. A hammock hangs in one corner; a pirate ship-cum-climbing-structure presides in another. The place looks like something out of Robinson Crusoe.

Elise’s Island, as it’s called, was designed by Dan Pearlman, a Berlin-based architecture/branding firm, as a 15,070-square-foot refuge for kids whose lives are anything but sunny. The patients here view the world through a lens of psychopathology, whether anorexia, anxiety, rage, depression, or all of the above. In Dr. Kamilla Körner-Köbele’s telling, child and adolescent psychiatry has grown more effective in recent years, with the duration of in-house stays dropping 66 percent since 1990. But for all the talk about quick solutions—about miracle drugs and instant behavioral therapy—little thought goes into patients’ physical surroundings. “For a long time, we wanted to have a space which enables our specific types of therapy to become effective,” Körner-Köbele says. “The new concept stands for our multimodal treatment approach: professional psychiatric and psychotherapeutic care in combination with a holistic design of the hospital rooms.”

The space takes its theme—and its name—from a tale about the hospital’s guardian angel, Queen Elisabeth (Elise) of Prussia. All the children admitted to the clinic hear the story: as a princess, Elise dreamed up her own island, a glorious thing with golden sand, palm trees, and waves buffeting the sun-bleached rocks. It was her cherished oasis. But then she grew up. She moved away. And rather than abandon her precious island to the wilds, she dedicated it to the young patients of the hospital so they, too, would always feel safe. “As patron saint and fairy godmother of children with psychological diseases, she offers them their own island, where they can get hope, help, and healing,” says Volker Katschinski, creative director of Dan Pearlman. It was the pitch-perfect metaphor to emblazon on the walls.

The challenge was to design a single “island” for children whose ages range from 3 to 18. A 5-year-old won’t exactly flourish in a room painted angsty-teen black, as one kid requested, just as a 16-year-old won’t take kindly to dollhouses and tea sets. So the Dan Pearlman design team toured the old psych ward, asking young patients to describe their ideal environment. (Comfy furniture and private rooms were running themes.) They also consulted with doctors and medical staff, who requested compartmented areas (where children could feel sheltered) and discouraged “trigger colors” such as yellow (which might provoke the little ones to wet their pants). Based on that feedback, the designers decided to break the space into three areas, each with its own age-appropriate motif. Dune Beach, for kids three to seven, has “sand dune” nooks, fuzzy carpeting, and drapes that convey a sense of warmth and protection. Palm Cove, for antsy 7- to 13-year-olds, has enough climbable surfaces to please Edmund Hillary, and its mascot, Coco the parrot, inspires children to take risks. Teenagers hole up at Rock Haven, which has a clipper-ship theme to signal adolescents’ need to set sail from their elders. Colors were selected in each corridor to hew to the island theme but also for therapeutic value—orange for healing, green for motivation, and blue for relieving stress. “These are known colors for emotions,” says the architect Prime Lee, who consulted a book by a famous German color psychologist, among other resources, for the project. “It is no secret.”

Elise’s Island opened on two floors of the hospital’s stately neo-Renaissance building last October. It’s impossible to measure whether the design has had any direct curative effects, but doctors anecdotally note that the adolescents seem less aggressive and the younger children mellower. What’s more, Körner-Köbele says, the impact reaches beyond the patients to medical staff and family members. “In this open, friendly atmosphere,” she says, “parents and relatives of the children and adolescents can engage more easily in the therapeutic processes.”

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