Johns Hopkins' new hospital sets transformative vision

For generations, patients entering Johns Hopkins Hospital walked past an oil painting of the founder and a marble statue of Jesus Christ. In the building that Hopkins opened this spring, they see blue and green rhinos, a flying ostrich and a purple cow jumping over 28 moons.

The playful sculptures help differentiate the new building from its 19th-century predecessor, which seems hopelessly stuffy by comparison. But there's much more to the new Hopkins Hospital — Baltimore's first $1 billion building — than its sculptural menagerie. Beyond the wit and whimsy is a serious and provocative work of architecture that reflects fundamental changes in the way Hopkins cares for the sick.

On an urban level, it's a new front door for the hospital and a symbolic new face of health care in East Baltimore, with a major civic space marking the entrance. Inside, it represents an effort to reinvent practically every aspect of a hospital, on a previously underused part of Hopkins' East Baltimore medical campus. From an aesthetic standpoint, it's a building that takes risks, from its multicolored facades to its collection of more than 500 original works of art inside.

The result is a transformative building for Hopkins and Baltimore.

Designed by Perkins + Will of Chicago, the $1.1 billion project contains 1.6 million square feet of space, including 560 private patient rooms in two 12-story, glass-clad towers: the Charlotte R. Bloomberg Children's Center and the Sheikh Zayed Tower, for adults. Other key team members were Olin, a prominent landscape architect; consulting architect Allen Kolkowitz of Kolkowitz and Kusske; and art consultant Nancy Rosen.

Working with a five-acre parcel on the north side of Orleans Street between Broadway and Wolfe Street, Perkins + Will principals Ralph Johnson and Jerry Johnson designed the towers so they rise from a common eight-story base that contains operating rooms, clinical and diagnostic spaces, offices and a commercial arcade. The children's tower is on the east, with a curving south facade, primarily blue; the adult tower is in midblock, set back from Orleans Street, with a facade that's primarily green. By creating towers that are highly visible from the south and connecting the base to the rest of the medical campus, they reoriented the hospital so it appears to face, and become more a part of, the city's revitalized harbor.

The towers frame a large piazza that serves as the new main hospital entrance off Orleans Street, supplanting entrances off Broadway and Wolfe Street. Along with a canopy-covered driveway reminiscent of the curving drop-off zone at BWI-Thurgood Marshall Airport, Olin filled the forecourt with meditation and healing gardens open to the surrounding community as well as hospital patients and staff — a valuable contribution to the public realm.

The courtyard leads to four hospital entries: the new main entrance, the emergency entrance, the children's main entrance and the children's emergency entrance. That's a telling change from the previous arrangement, in which the emergency departments had more obscure entrances far from the main one. Under the new layout, the sultan of Brunei would follow the same arrival sequence as a cancer patient from East Baltimore, and presumably receive the same level of care.

The rethinking extends throughout the hospital. Some changes are as basic as separating public areas more clearly from areas used mostly by patients and staff. Elevators, 28 in all, make Hopkins more of a vertical hospital than ever before. Designers rethought areas such as nurse's stations, replacing them with smaller but more numerous "team stations" along hallways that put nurses closer to patients under their care. It's part of a sweeping series of changes designed to improve health care.

Besides reorganizing spaces, Hopkins and its design team sought to improve the quality of the physical setting, so it is commensurate with the quality of medical care for which Hopkins is known. Much of the impetus for design excellence came from one donor, New York mayor and Hopkins alumnus Michael R. Bloomberg, who contributed $120 million for the Orleans Street project. Bloomberg brought in Kolkowitz, Olin and Rosen, among others, to help influence the final design.

Many of Bloomberg's contributions involved commissioning art and other refinements that add warmth, humanity and a sense of sophistication to spaces that might otherwise have seemed sterile and disorienting. Designers used color and themed art to help people find their way around such a large building — blue and children's books for the children's center, green and "nature" for the adult tower.

Every floor has works of art that promise to take a patient's mind off his or her illness, at least temporarily. Robert Israel's kid-friendly animal sculptures include a 22-foot "Ostrich" and a winged "Cow Jumping Over the 28 Phases of the Moon." In patient rooms, Jim Boyd's window shade designs celebrate the Baltimore folk art tradition of painted screens. For a children's garden, Olin drew inspiration from "The Little Prince."

The largest single commission transformed the glass walls of the patient towers into works of public art. Bloomberg wanted to be sure the glass would be appropriately distinctive and reflective of the hospital's mission. Hopkins brought in New York artist Spencer Finch to work with Perkins + Will to help create the final design.

Finch designed a window pattern featuring 26 colors — mostly blues for the children's tower and greens for the adult tower, plus yellow, purple and gray. Finch selected his palette based on studies of paintings by the French Impressionist Claude Monet of his lily pond and gardens in Giverny, near Paris. Finch's focus on water can also be seen as a nod to Baltimore's waterfront in the distance.

Finch's composition has another distinguishing characteristic, a repeating design embedded within the glass, called a frit pattern. Finch generated a series of curved markings that suggest strokes of a paint brush — another reference to Monet. People inside the building can look through the "brush strokes" and see the city beyond. The effect is like standing in the middle of a just-shaken snow globe, or a shower of confetti. It takes some getting used to, but it shows how much the donor wanted a distinctive design and was willing to let an artist experiment to get it.

The risk with this sort of experimentation was that it could turn the towers into one-liners, objects that don't hold up well to repeated viewings, like so much patterned wallpaper. In this instance, the glass walls change in appearance over the course of the day, as Bloomberg wanted, depending on how sunlight hits them or clouds cast shadows over them.

Finch started with color combinations that were meant to be viewed on one scale — Monet's intricate paintings — and blew them up to a much larger scale, while exposing the glass to lighting and weather conditions over which he did not have complete control. On overcast or hazy days, the effect can be more somber than joyous, especially from a distance. At the same time, the colored walls signal that something new and noteworthy is going on inside, and hospitals can be both somber and joyful, places of death and life. To that extent, Finch's work does what it was meant to do.

Of course, Hopkins could commission all the fritted glass and flying cows it wants, but health care is only as good as the people who provide it. By developing such rich and enriching healing environments, Hopkins and its designers have created a place where the best in the business can flourish.

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