State of the Art
Humanist ideals and an artisanal touch propel NBBJ's design for the Swedish Medical Center's Southeast Tower addition.
Jen Renzi -- Interior Design, 2/1/2001 12:00:00 AM
DESIGNER RYSIA SUCHECKA has often pondered the prevalence of-and questionable reasoning behind-visually sterile, bland hospital environments. "Why should patients be deprived of their dignity and their aesthetic sense," muses Suchecka, a design partner at the architecture firm NBBJ, "at precisely the moment their lives are a little frail?" For NBBJ's recent seven-story addition to the Swedish Medical Center in Seattle, Suchecka engaged all the senses by integrating contemporary artworks into the structural and conceptual framework. "Art is a wonderful way to open our eyes, to show us confidence, and to give us the strength to survive, both physically and spiritually," she explains. Furthermore, Suchecka believes that art can be a psychological device that reconnects patients to the world outside hospital walls while ensuring that their stay within is more bearable.
Swedish's long-standing tradition of displaying artworks throughout the building as a means to augment the healing process dates back to the early 1970s, around the same time that NBBJ first collaborated with the hospital on its master plan. As the medical complex expanded over the next three decades, so did its artistic ambitions, culminating in the commission of site-specific pieces for the 166,000-sq.-ft. tower addition, a curved triangular volume that houses new facilities for specialized treatment in the Southeast wing. The design team, headed by Suchecka, conceived a series of mixed-media installations on each floor to facilitate orientation and allay the "incredible fear, incredible stress, and incredible anxiety" associated with hospital visits. "We recognized the opportunity to incorporate artisans from the very beginning, including them in the development of the overall design expression and sequencing." Early involvement was instrumental in achieving integrated results; otherwise the artworks would read as "mere appliqué" rather than a holistic effort. Thirty-two artists were invited to submit concepts that "convey a message of hope, healing, and courage," and that fit the 9-ft.-by-8.-ft. dimensions of the allotted location, the oval-shaped entrance zone at each level. Sixteen individuals were selected to present mock-ups of their ideas, from which the eight finalists were chosen. The program mobilized an army of talent, including the architects and project managers, art consultants, artisans, interior designers, and the hospital's art committee, as well as the doctors, nurses, and technicians on staff. Ultimately, NBBJ "relied on the intuition of the people who work there to determine which piece was appropriate for each floor." Encompassing a range of media and materials-including painting, mosaic, sculpture, and collage-the installations form a cohesive language that unifies the design while allowing for individuation on each floor.
Expressive decorative flourishes further blur the boundary between artwork and architectural element. To tie the tower addition into the fabric of the original structure, NBBJ adhered to the inherited palette of warm maple veneer and patterned linoleum flooring, but wielded a looser, bravado touch this time around. "We wanted a bold floor pattern as the guiding element to conduct people through the space," Suchecka says, "something memorable, but not overdone." Lyrical abstract forms mimic the natural curves of the convex floor plan, directing visitors towards the waiting areas and nurses' stations. Crisscross ceiling tiles throughout the corridors mirror the stylized plaid flooring below, installed on the diagonal and rendered in pleasing shades of lemon and periwinkle. Recessed light fixtures in the maple drop-ceilings were installed in a contoured arrangement. The high-touch aesthetic cuts right to the goal of health care design: not only accommodating medical functions and equipment, but also nurturing the "human experience and relationships" that unfold within-and that are just as essential to a patient's healing process.