With the Southcentral Foundation Primary Care Center in Anchorage, NBBJ attends to the unique needs of native Alaskans
Jen Renzi -- Interior Design, 1/1/2004 12:00:00 AM
Between its sheer vastness and bravura beauty, Alaska telegraphs man's subservience to nature at every turn—a fact both humbling and unexpectedly life-affirming. The continuous cycle of birth, death, and rebirth is imprinted on the rugged facade of each mountain, the glassy depth of each fjord, and the very fabric of the native culture.
The specialized needs of this indigenous population were the propelling forces behind NBBJ's sensitive scheme for expanding the Southcentral Foundation Primary Care Center in Anchorage—a city where, despite the urbanism, one is apt to rub elbows with the errant moose. "Our approach to health care is to consider humans as a whole, not just as patients," says partner Rysia Suchecka, who worked with partner Richard Dallam on the Anchorage facility. "Designers have a huge responsibility, one we can't take lightly. It's not about satisfying your own ego." (Words to abide by, no matter the project type.)
For a past job on the same campus, NBBJ's commitment to the patient experience involved Dallam visiting remote islands to interview villagers. This time, the firm questioned administrators and doctors about local customs and beliefs to ensure that patients would feel a sense of comfort and ownership of the design. "You always have to get in tune with the culture, whether it's in Dallas or Doha," he says. Because Native Alaskans traditionally receive natural healing in their own homes, surrounded by family, NBBJ faced two scenarios unusual in U.S. medicine: either patients with extended families in tow or anxious, uprooted individuals traveling solo for the first time—sometimes by helicopter.
Common denominators aside, however, the constituency is incredibly diverse. "Each tribe has its own language, religion, artwork, clothing," explains associate Stacey Bender. "The space had to feel familiar and relevant—yet abstract enough so as not to offend anyone." Or to overwhelm patients who have never before laid eyes on a permanent built structure, let alone a medical campus.
The NBBJ project entailed remodeling an existing 40,000-square-foot brick facility, adding a 50,000-square-foot wing to one side, and connecting the two, spatially and conceptually, with a lobby of 5,000 square feet. Throughout the interior, rounded forms reference native Alaskans' belief in the circle of life—from the double-height lobby's curved walls and sweeping gypsum-board ceiling to the circular patient-resource center, which encloses a cylindrical video room clad in translucent acrylic panels recalling the ice blocks of an igloo. Even the walls of some exam rooms are curved. "Overall," says Suchecka, "the space feels more like a village than a building." And way-finding becomes more intuitive—in a context where illiteracy renders signage particularly challenging.
Undulating lines inform furniture, too. In the lobby, seating with S-shape anigre backs is freestanding, so four units can be grouped to form ' a "talking circle" for congregating families. "Native Alaskans are used to squatting in a ring around a fire," explains Bender.
Among other indigenous metaphors, the glulam beams in the lobby represent not only trees but also the wooden framework of kayaks and vernacular shelters, usually covered with stretched animal skins. Stitching that often appears on those skins inspired the details on the staircase's Sunbrella balustrade. "There's a lot of visual interest at seams, a motif we carried through our design," says Bender.
Natural anigre, granite, limestone, and maple predominate, as do restful earth tones. Glazing is extensive, connecting perimeter offices and waiting areas with constant fluctuations of light and weather. (Exam rooms occupy the core.)
For all the carefully considered functionalism and symbolism, though, the design's overriding strength is an aesthetic intangible. "Medical spaces should be inspiring," says Suchecka. "When something dramatic has happened in your life, beauty should be enhanced."