Hospital Architecture and You

“Why hospital architecture, in particular?”

I looked at that question on my Blackberry as my train sped through middle-of-nowhere Michigan. The question came from Neil Steinberg, the Chicago Sun-Times columnist, in regards to my Twitter bio containing a declaration of me being a “hospital architecture enthusiast.” There was more to the direct message, but the question of why I enjoy hospital architecture stayed in my head when I was not catching naps on the train. I briefly answered the question at one point, trying my hardest to be concise.

I enjoy architecture in general because I view architecture as a form of art. For example, I find the Broad Museum of Art at Michigan State University to be too modern for the part of campus it sits on and impractical as an art museum. (Have you ever tried looking at paintings that hang on slanted walls?) Meanwhile, I love the Quadracci Pavilion at the Milwaukee Art Museum because it enhances Milwaukee’s skyline while also allowing visitors to take in both the art and the beauty of Lake Michigan.

The main reason hospital architecture fascinates me because the architect has to fine the right balance of form and function.

A hospital has to be designed in such a way to make it easy for patients, visitors and staff to get around. But then there’s the aspect of making it not terrifying and making design moves to maximize beds in a tight space or improve recovery through design.

Take Thorek Memorial Hospital in Uptown for example. It’s a boxy brick building sitting in Chicago, nothing really spectacular about it’s design. Inside the walls and flooring looks like a generic hospital, although the last time I was there the hospital had vacant dark waiting rooms you had to walk through to get to other parts of the hospital and grime in various areas. It seemed like the last place you wanted to end up in for hospitalization and not a pleasant place to recover from illness or surgery.

Meanwhile Rush University Medical Center’s tower, which opened in 2012, features large windows and green spaces throughout the building, including a terrarium inside the lobby. On Rush’s website for the tower, the choice to design the area for patient rooms like a butterfly stemmed from the design improving sight lines for nurses and putting them closer to the patients.

The butterfly design, although feeling like a more attractive version of Bertrand Goldberg’s Prentice Women’s Hospital, was done to improve the quality of care. When I toured John H. Stroger Jr. Hospital of Cook County in 2011 for a piece for Gapers Block aspects of Stroger’s design pointed out to me were things like separate waiting rooms for pediatric emergency and private rooms in the neonatal unit were ways of showing how the hospital was an improvement from what previously existed.
Cook County Hospital
Cook County Hospital is a gorgeous building and one of my favorite buildings in Chicago for its aesthetic value. The hospital was built in 1912 and by the time it closed it was largely outdated. One of the more horrifying details to modern times is the use of an open ward for maternity where woman giving birth was sandwiched between beds where other women who were in labor lay. The hospital was also, by all accounts, not a very efficient hospital largely due to the design not working well as it entered the late 20th Century.

Although Stroger does not share its predecessor’s beauty, it is a pleasant building to look at. The lobby has large windows, allowing for a great view of the Fantus Health Center next door, and the purple signs and awnings feel oddly soothing to me. No, it doesn’t have the grand Beaux Arts look, but it works as a hospital and as was pointed out frequently to me while touring it, they tried to improve from what previously existed.

There are other hospitals with architecture that strikes me as interesting. The old Los Angeles County/USC Medical Center is another building with fantastic lines and excellent details that works well with the rest of other historic Los Angeles buildings built in the early 20th Century. Above the doors of the hospital are carved statues of various men–Hippocrates, Scottish surgeon John Hunter, Louis Pasteur–acting as if they’re the guardians of medicine. (Similar to Cook County Hospital, Los Angeles County/USC Medical Center’s predecessor isn’t nearly as architecturally interesting, but it is pleasant to look at.)

The new Columbia St. Mary’s Medical Center in a very modern and unique looking building. Rather than going with a boxy metal and glass design, the 2010 building features curved and straight lines. Next door is the women’s hospital, which uses a “cloverleaf” design, but not the same as the Rush Tower’s cloverleaf design. As I was going past the building with my mother, we wondered if the design maximized the amount of windows in the patient rooms, which would be nice since Columbia St. Mary’s Medical Center sits very close to Lake Michigan.

The old Prentice Women’s Hospital in Chicago also featured a cloverleaf design, but due to the materials used in its construction it ended up being viewed by quite a few Chicagoans as being an eyesore. The materials used for the women’s hospital at Columbia St. Mary’s keep it from being a brutal structure.

Lake Michigan

Lake Michigan viewed from Lurie Children’s Hospital.

But sometimes interesting hospitals don’t have to immediately stand out for beautiful details or an interesting design at the street level. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago has a rather straight-forward boxy design. But on the inside you see all of the details the architects and planners created to make it a great hospital for children. There’s the large inviting lobby, complete with a giant fake whale; the aquarium near the emergency department waiting room, the indoor gardens and the design of the patient rooms to create a good space for the patient’s family as well as improve accessibility for doctors and nurses.

The hospital is located in Streeterville, which allows it to have fantastic views of Lake Michigan, which at least is soothing to me. Sometimes the best parts of hospitals are hidden from the street and can only be found on the inside.

Those little details are the best part of admiring the construction and design of hospitals.

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