86533 Anatomical Theatre

The term ‘medical theatre’, in its contemporary usage, sits largely as an anomaly of descriptive nomenclature. The operating table, the medical procedure, as well as the patient records that precede and follow the operation, are applied with a layer of bureaucratic confidentiality comparable to the absolute sterilization of the hospital’s physical environment. The medical theatre has no audience, no actors and no stage – its workings are completely isolated from spectatorship.

Unlike the contemporary medical theatre, the birth of the ‘theatre in medicine’ occurred through precisely the opposite agenda. In northern Italy during the 14th century, surgeons charged with the distribution of medical knowledge would invite their students to witness the dissection of a cadaver (corpse) in the domestic setting of their own home (Macchi et al. 2014, p. 487). Within the following decades, the exercise of anatomical study would become identified as a crucial practice in the training of medical students, and the advancement of the medical profession. These realizations were materialised in Padua with the first anatomical theatres; initially constructed as temporary formations of a stage surrounded by a series of viewing platforms, and then formalized in the late 16th century in the the now historically significant anatomical theatre of Padua (Macchi et al. 2014, p. 488). Arranged as a series of concentric viewing platforms extending vertically to overlook the podium upon which the corpse was displayed, the Anatomical Theatre of Hieronymus Fabricius Ab Aquapendente could accommodate 300 viewers with clear sight of a single horizontally positioned corpse – the stage of the anatomical theatre had been set as an architectural type.

In the middle of the 17th century, the anatomical theatre of Bologna, housed in the city’s university, furnished the functionality of the Padua model with the importation of symbolic décor representative of the institution of medical epistemology and incorporating ancient motifs referencing the foundation of the medical discipline (Matteo et al. 2015). The spaces dedicated to the lecturer and the technical demonstrator, were covered with a canopy, crafting a frame around both the lesson’s narrator and actor. As if borrowing conceptual tropes from the adjacent practices of stagecraft and set design, the anatomical theatre became a machine for viewing; positioning the viewer in relation to the demonstration plane using calculated seat locations. Further, it deployed specific methods of spatial sequencing, programmatic separation, and carefully selected ornament to invest a decorum of formality that re-viewed the vulgarity of corpse as a scientific operation. The different forms of the anatomical theatre spread throughout continental Europe, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America until the 20th century, and then throughout the world until the present.

The technologies associated with the contemporary practice of medicine have evolved at a rapid rate. At the start of the 21st century robot assisted surgery (see: da Vinci Machine) entered the medical profession, and in the current decade has the capacity to enable remote surgery undertaken by surgeons upon patients positioned on opposite sides of the globe. Contemporary anatomical theatres employ synchronized projectors that collectively define a 3 dimensional map of different human anatomies through ephemeral displays of media. Similarly, the information pertaining to advanced medical procedures, and specific medical cases have been digitised through online information networks such as UpToDate. The audiences, cadaver (in replacement of the patient), doctor and lecturer, exist in a web that has been radically expanded by the technologies of the present age. Like the traditional theatre, and its embryonic construction of concentric spatial layers, the anatomical theatre moves between microscopic organic cells and the Internet systems spanning the contemporary world. Within this extreme scalar gradient of the contemporary anatomical theatre, the designer must reconsider the relationship between the viewer and operation through a series of contemporized questions that might include;

Given the information networks of the 21st century, why would students continue to attend the live act of anatomical dissection? How will the designer position the viewer to maximise the experience of the attending student? What are the experiential components of the anatomical dissection that cannot be conveyed through Internet-based documentation, and how can these experiences be better-captured and exploited using theatre technologies?

This brief demands that students design a new anatomical theatre for educating future generations of medical practitioners. Drawing upon precedents from the lineage of anatomical theatres, and investigating contemporary medical technologies, new modes of interactive media and the advanced mechanics of the present-day theatre, students will reposition the anatomical theatre as an intensively focussed investigative mechanism positioned to reveal the hidden interactions of organic human componentry. Within this project, students will be required to understand the effect of theatre technologies at a range of scales, and as a production mechanism for the staging of atmospheres. Spatially the anatomical theatre will be studied as a complex composite formed from many spatial types; the entry, promenade, and auditorium as well as the storage space, mechanical rooms, and ancillary functions. Further, as students challenge and interrogate the anatomical theatre as a ‘type’ of theatre, the studio demands that they embark on the challenge of drawing and modelling these spaces. Spaces that can no longer be considered static, and finite, but ones formed, and reformed through mechanical apparatuses, and media technologies.


Diorama of Padua Anatomical Theatre. Wikicommons