The architects have compensated by using a large, colored facade to brighten and lighten the face that the hospital puts to the world. Perkins + Will worked with Brooklyn-based artist Spencer Finch to create an “alphabet of colors,” inspired by the Giverny paintings of Claude Monet. Applied to panels and incorporated into the skin of the hospital, these color swatches alternate with windows to create an illusion of a fully transparent glass skin. The facade also draws attention away from the masses of dull brick and the bulky, blunt massing of the building.
It is, in other words, a facade in the sense that critics often deride: a skin meant to hide or decorate a building. But as architects for thousands of years have known, a facade is a cost-efficient way to add surface delight to uninspiring geometric forms.
Aesthetics function in a unique way inside a hospital. It’s not about deep emotional or artistic engagement, but a mild, sustaining form of preoccupation. In the adult wings, nature scenes and a natural color palette predominate. In the children’s wing, the need for distraction becomes more acute. The hospital hired stage designer Robert Israel to create animal sculptures to animate the Charlotte R. Bloomberg Children’s Center (named in honor of the mother of New York’s uber-wealthy mayor). They are attractive sculptures, including a large rhinoceros in the forecourt and a school of fish, which seems to be swimming in the main stairwell. Art inspired by famous children’s books is used throughout the tower to attract and divert the patients.
It is difficult to assess the impact of these details with an adult’s skepticism and ingrained fear of mortality. Looking at a child’s crib dwarfed by equipment in an intensive-care room or at the double-height light-drenched space where children will receive chemotherapy, it’s hard not to wonder whether animals, colors and adorable pictures will have any effect. But when I dredge up memories of a week I spent in a hospital at the age of 8 (and not nearly so sick as the kids who will use the Hopkins facility), the one thing I remember clearly was the television. It was a novelty to have it in one’s room, with a remote control to change the channels. Perhaps small delights do divert young minds even when ill.
The most striking architectural detail of the hospital isn’t apparent until one enters the public cafeteria at the back of the new building. The space has been carefully and expertly integrated into the existing campus, with a garden connecting the new building to a historic structure from the early 20th century. Hospitals often eat up vast tracts in neighborhoods where land is cheap and thus become impediments to urban renewal and gentrification. That is almost surely going to be an issue with this facility.
But as with so many other things about this structure, it’s not easy to see what else can be done. If the hospital must grow, where else makes sense? In the end, one finds oneself in reluctant admiration of this structure. Perhaps, someday, the functional spaces of hospitals will be as inviting as the patient rooms and lobbies. Perhaps, someday, hospitals won’t be neighborhood killers. Perhaps, someday, health care will be affordable, equitably distributed and uniformly high-quality.
For now, compromise is inevitable. Most visitors will leave thinking ambivalently: I hope I never have to come here; but if I have to go to a hospital, I hope it looks like this one.