Art and architecture at NeuRA

Bettina Bartos is the architect who designed NeuRA’s Margarete Ainsworth building. She shares how the building’s design was developed, and how the innovative vision of Artbank and its collection of Australian art put the finishing touches on this much-welcomed facility.

There is nothing new about the synergy between art and science. Indeed, Leonardo Da Vinci is probably best known for his artworks that were informed by scientific investigation. So it seemed only appropriate that the new building for NeuRA provide an opportunity to highlight the natural overlap between art and science.

Having seen various artworks that existing NeuRA building occupants had used to personalise their workspaces, and gifts of artworks from patients, it seemed as though staff and visitors alike would appreciate having larger pieces located throughout the building.

Isobel Johnston series

The external facetted glass form of the building was designed to facilitate a memorable image for NeuRA, and speak of the cutting-edge research occurring within. The internal arrangement was no less important, with the driving forces being to encourage and facilitate interaction and collaboration between staff, and to maximise natural light and the feeling of space to both laboratory and office areas.

This, in turn, led to the design of a series of spaces, such as the large triple-height atrium with its connecting bridge links and the generous lift cores on every level, which also provided a perfect opportunity for the incorporation and display of art.

Artworks needed to be generous and bold in order to do the space justice; however, the purchase of a large number of substantial artworks was not economically feasible. This led to the idea of “borrowing” significant pieces for long-term display.

I had heard about an organisation called Artbank, an Australian Government support program that acquires the work of living, Australian contemporary artists who make their collection available to the general public through a leasing program.

The Artbank collection has been building for over 30 years, and with around 10,000 artworks, it is one of the largest collections of Australian art in the world, holding “some of the greatest examples of Indigenous and non-Indigenous artwork produced during the past four decades”. 100% of the revenue generated from leasing is directed towards supporting living artists, so I was excited to be able to initiate a great opportunity to expose NeuRA building occupants and visitors to some great examples of Australian contemporary art, whilst at the same time supporting Australian art and culture.

The brief to Artbank was simple: to select pieces that responded to both the NeuRA vision and the architectural significance of the building. Artwork needed to be placed in prominent locations to maximise the experience for everyone, and needed to complement the strong internal colour scheme of the building. Being able to find artwork that had a ‘scientific theme’ would be an added bonus. Given that many of the artworks would also be able to be viewed from both near and far, it was important that individual pieces were able to respond to a changing perspective.

Working closely with one of Artbank’s art consultants, a site visit was arranged to gain an understanding of NeuRA and its research programs, and the architectural quality of the space itself. From this, Artbank began with a preliminary selection of artworks that they felt met our brief.

However, with so many artworks in Artbank’s collection, choosing the final pieces was not a simple task. As the selection of art is such a personal experience, it was important to choose pieces that were not too polarising, but at the same time had enough interest to generate discussion and create stimulating spaces. After many hours spent in Artbank’s warehouse sorting through rack after rack of art, and then checking against availability and budget, we had our collection!

Frank Hodgkinson - "Sun"

Frank Hodgkinson – “Sun”

Now, if you wander through the Margarete Ainsworth building you will see a selection of incredible artworks from some of Australia’s leading contemporary artists, including Frank Hodgkinson, Matthew Johnson, Wendy Kelly, David Sequeira, Philip Watkins, Isobel Johnston, and William Breen.

Welcome to the new Margarete Ainsworth Building

After many months of construction, not to mention anticipation, we have officially opened the new Margarete Ainsworth Building at NeuRA (Neuroscience Research Australia).

Jillian Skinner MP (left) and Tanya Plibersek MP (right) congratulate philanthropist Margarete Ainsworth (centre) on the opening of the Margarete Ainsworth Building at NeuRA

We were lucky enough to host Federal Minister for Health and Minister for Medical Research, Tanya Plibersek MP and NSW State Minister for Health and Minister for Medical Research, Jillian Skinner MP, as well as philanthropist Margarete Ainsworth.

As NeuRA chairman Paul Brassil said in his speech, Margarete Ainsworth has been exceptionally generous to NeuRA and “we thank her most sincerely for her trust and confidence in NeuRA’s research capacity”.

The official opening of the Margarete Ainsworth Building at NeuRA

Lucille Bloch, whose husband Keith had frontotemporal dementia and was a research participant at NeuRA, reminded us in her speech what this new building is all about: the power of research to find answers to devastating diseases of the brain. I’ve pasted a copy of Lucille’s speech below for those who couldn’t make it to our opening.

Here’s to a new era of discoveries at NeuRA.

Lucille Bloch, a carer and research participant at NeuRA, participates in a demonstration of using illusion to relieve pain.

Lucille Bloch’s speech

My husband Keith was always an easy person. We had a very good relationship; we shared everything, we respected each other.

In the year 2000, we decided to pack up our life in Israel and move to Australia to be with our three sons. It was around this time that I noticed changes in Keith’s behaviour.

What stood out for me was his inability to pack up his beloved hobby workshop before emigration. Eventually I had to do it myself. I’d never held a spanner in my life, and here I was dismantling everything, with Keith just watching. This was totally out of character for him.

I said to myself, why is Keith so different? And as I said ‘different’, I stopped. I felt very concerned, because I remembered what my father, a GP, had said about my mother when he suspected she had Alzheimer’s disease; that her behaviour was different somehow to what it had always been.

Shortly afterwards, I spoke to our GP, but he brushed aside my concerns. The next three years were heartbreaking and very difficult as I watched Keith behave in ways that were so out of character for the man I knew. Finally, a neurologist sent him for tests and gave us a diagnosis: Keith had frontotemporal dementia.

There is this over-riding grief when the person you love has dementia. You can only stand by watching as the person you love loses skills and abilities, one by one.

When we first arrived in Australia, Keith still loved to tinker in his workshop, but it became evident quite quickly that it was becoming dangerous. He had lost physical coordination and the ability to forward plan, so there was no more sawing, no more using his electric tools.

I had to just follow Keith’s deterioration, trying to accommodate it. Initially I would lay out his clothes for him in the morning. When he could no longer easily manage, I thought of ways of folding and tying his clothes to help him dress himself for just that little bit longer.

Keith’s deterioration was rapid. He had many falls. I managed most times to pick him up, but about a year after diagnosis, he needed a wheelchair. I was determined to care for Keith at home. It was difficult, but somehow if you want to, you do it.

He attended day centres, I took him to the Art Gallery, out for coffee and had our children and grandchildren share meals with us. After dinner I changed and settled Keith using a hoist to lift and move him.

He never lost his memory or his ability to feel and understand emotions. At the day centre, Keith would write cards to me. They were mostly illegible, but the staff asked him what he had written and told me.

I have one of the cards here with me today, and it says: “Dear Lucille, thank you for being the Mother of my children. Love, Your Husband”.

As you can see, he may have lost many things, but he was still the same loving husband.

During this time, I attended a presentation by Professor John Hodges from Neuroscience Research Australia about the need for brain donation and the great value it has for research. The idea grabbed me.

I went home that night and discussed it with Keith, suggesting we could both donate our brains. Keith agreed immediately. He said, ‘We’ve got four children, your mother had it, now I’ve got it. Let’s do it and let’s help other people.’ We discussed it with our children, they agreed, and thus our bond with NeuRA began.

I brought Keith regularly to NeuRA for cognitive tests and MRI scans. At all times, Keith was treated with dignity and respect. I too have been attending this amazing research institute for regular tests.

When I felt that he was going, I gathered all my four children. Even two of the grandchildren were there, aged just nine and six. The grandchildren always knew that gramps had dementia; we didn’t want to hide anything.

That last night, we put him to bed and I sat beside him and said, let’s talk about our life, and you squeeze my hand if you remember. So we’d talk about where we had lived, our children, and he kept squeezing my hand.

Keith passed away at home, with me at his bedside holding his hand. We called the Sydney Brain Bank and, with great dignity and sensitivity, they took my Keith and arranged for his brain donation without any disruption to the funeral plans.

Afterwards, Professor Hodges and his team told me that Keith had suffered from both frontotemporal dementia and also, unexpectedly, from Alzheimer’s disease. It is rare for these two diseases to occur together, and they said they would learn a tremendous amount from studying his case.

My dream was to have Keith’s dementia reversed. Realistically, however, both Keith and I would be well rewarded if participation in research here at NeuRA, together with our brain donations, advances knowledge about this horrible disease.

My vision for the future is a world where there is a cure for dementia in all its forms or at least medication that will arrest it.

I want those people who will unfortunately follow my husband Keith down the same path of dementia to have hope.

Thank you.