August 1, 2012

The Art of Healing: Johns Hopkins Hospital by Perkins + Will

The mercury had hit triple digits on a recent afternoon in Baltimore, but Perkins + Will design principal Carolyn BaRoss couldn’t help grinning as she strolled through a lobby at the Johns Hopkins Hospital. “The construction workers called this corner the Snow Globe, which is great on a day like today,” she says. And a surreal snow globe it is. Thousands of white strokes, the “snow,” are fused onto the curtain wall of an atrium containing a 22-foot-tall ostrich, prancing through the air toward a school of Brobdingnagian puffer fish, as well as a cubist cow, soaring toward a ring of moons. 

These whimsical sculptures, by renowned opera set designer Robert Israel, are among the 500 works created by 70 artists for the 1.6 million-square-foot building. It cost $1.1 billion to construct and comprises an eight-story base and, connected by it, two 12-story towers, the Charlotte R. Bloomberg Children’s Center and the Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan Tower for adult care. The base provides an efficient and welcoming point of entry while housing, among other state-of-the-art facilities, separate emergency rooms for children and adults. In the towers are a total of 560 private patient rooms.

At every turn, thought-provoking art greets the eye. The largest site-specific works are the sections of curtain wall, commissioned from artist Spencer Finch. Known for his exploration of optical effects, he studied a Claude Monet still life of wisteria, on display at the Musée Marmottan Monet in Paris, then distilled the shades of purple, blue, green, yellow, and gray into a palette for painted aluminum panels. They’re mounted behind the glass of the curtain wall, which has become an instant icon shimmering above Baltimore.

“Spencer was very open-minded in terms of learning how curtain walls are put up and responding to the architecture that existed,” Perkins + Will national design director Ralph Johnson says, recalling how he and Finch walked around New York for a crash course in curtain-wall technology. The added “snow,” actually an evocation of Monet’s brushstrokes, was also intended to make patients feel less exposed as they enter the atrium. To determine the right amount of density versus transparency, Finch spent a weekend dabbing 3,000 curved white lines on glass samples. Then he and the Perkins + Will team, along with art consultant Nancy Rosen and a Johns Hopkins staffer, picked their 200 favorite “smileys” and “frownies” to be fritted on the curtain wall’s outer glass.

This collaborative process characterized the project from the get-go—a joint effort involving designers, an art consultant, artists, and the client, not to mention the donors. The adults’ tower honors the founding president of the United Arab Emirates. Bloomberg Philanthropies funded the children’s center. It’s named in memory of the mother of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a Johns Hopkins University alum, and he insisted that art be integrated into every aspect of the architecture, furnishings, and gardens.

Art is everywhere, even topping the oval desks that facilitate the distribution of wristbands while hiding storage for security officers. On the larger information desks, in lieu of a cliché bouquet, you might find a sculpture inspired by the tradition of Chinese scholars’ rocks. Paintings and prints serve as way-finding devices, displayed in elevator lobbies and previewed on monitors inside the elevators.

Each level in the children’s center features a colorful vitrine filled with kooky cloth creatures reading children’s classics. Artworks lining the halls were inspired by such books—without being derivative or patronizing. This is not the land of “Hang in there, baby!” kitty posters that patients grow to despise, as one of the artists, Casey Ruble, remembers from the nurse’s office at her school. Her antidote was to base several fanciful paintings on The Secret Garden and Hans Christian Andersen tales.

Considering how pediatric design tends toward the garish, the neutral background of gray terrazzolike resin flooring, off-white Venetian plaster, Greek marble, and Wisconsin limestone was one way that Perkins + Will showed respect for young patients. Just as thoughtful are the functional details. Curved hallways reduce noise, and a lot of consideration went into maintaining sight lines to exterior windows and creating quiet nooks. “It’s about having moments that are meaningful,” BaRoss says. Or lighthearted. Patients don’t have to leave their beds to play virtual bingo with one another, via a TV screen and console.

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