A healing feeling

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The future has two faces at the Johns Hopkins medical campus in East Baltimore.

Tomorrow at 10 a.m., dignitaries will gather to dedicate the first of them: the $125 million Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Building, home of Hopkins' Comprehensive Cancer Center. On Dec. 6, Hopkins donors and administrators will unveil the second: a $59 million cancer research tower called the Bunting-Blaustein Building.

Less than two blocks apart, these buildings will be in full operation by early next year. Together, they'll form a new hub of cancer research and treatment at Hopkins.

While much of the attention at the openings will go to the talented people Hopkins employs and the equipment inside, the buildings themselves reveal much about the institution's commitment to fighting cancer and its preparations for additional growth.

With these new structures, Hopkins has taken an unconventional approach to campus design. Rather than making one consistent architectural statement, it has erected two buildings that are very different in appearance. One is a modern tower with clean, simple lines and a minimum of ornamentation, a straightforward, no-nonsense structure that looks boldly to the future. The other, at least on the exterior, is a throwback to the past, with large dormers, sweeping verandas and other old-fashioned details that connect it with older buildings nearby.

This disparity raises questions about the face Hopkins wants to present to the world: Does it want to be known as a cutting-edge institution that attracts trail- blazing researchers? Or a gentle care-giver that hasn't lost sight of its proud heritage? Judging from its newest buildings, it wants to be a little of both.

Reflecting history

Located at the northeast corner of Orleans Street and Broadway, south of the three oldest buildings on campus, the eight-level, 350,000-square-foot Weinberg building is the largest structure ever built on Hopkins' East Baltimore campus.

The idea behind the cancer center was to bring together most of the cancer-related clinical activities scattered around Hopkins' East Baltimore campus. The building contains 16 operating suites; 20 intensive-care beds; 72 surgical beds; 62 inpatient beds specifically for cancer treatment; and an expansive outpatient treatment pavilion.

To design the building, Hopkins hired Odell Associates Inc. of Charlotte, N. C., with Benjamin Rook as managing principal. Odell's building has five levels above ground and three levels of underground parking. To break down the building's apparent scale and help it fit in with its surroundings, the architects gave the exterior Victorian-style details that echo those on three Victorian-era buildings along Broadway, the domed Billings administration building, and the Marburg and Wilmer buildings.

This was a departure from the more staunchly modernist buildings that Hopkins constructed within the past two decades. Some would consider it a step backward architecturally. But the cancer center director, Martin Abeloff, says he likes the approach because it sends a message that while Hopkins is upgrading its facilities for the future, it hasn't abandoned its tradition of patient care.

For him, the Victorian imagery provides a reassuring sign that there is a humane environment inside. "Architecture is very important" to the healing process, he said. "I think this building is really going to have a humanity to it."

Drawing on Hopkins' past, though, posed a challenge for the architects. Billings, Marburg and Wilmer are refined structures with delicate detailing. Dating from 1889 and restored over the years, they form a beautiful frontispiece to the medical center. The trick for Odell's team was to design a modern building that reflected the historic character of its neighbors, without upstaging them.

But because of the sheer size of the cancer center, it was almost unavoidable that it would compete with the other Broadway buildings for attention, and it does. It also lacks much of the other buildings' finesse: Its proportions are heavy, the trim is thicker, details are more pronounced (the dormers seem particularly oversized). It simply suffers by comparison.

In a sense, it's like many of the "McMansions" rising in the suburbs these days, as affluent homebuyers seek more square footage for their possessions. These mega-houses are often built in the same styles as older homes in their neighborhoods, but they are so bloated they don't fit in. The cancer center, too, verges on becoming a pumped-up parody of its predecessors: McHospital.

Humane interior

Any negative impressions of the pseudo-Victorian veneer, though, are likely to be offset by the positive attributes of the spaces inside. At every turn, the building offers a humane and hospitable environment.

The entrance level resembles the lobby of a four-star hotel, with palm trees, skylights, even a desk for the concierge. The three levels of parking below the clinical areas -- a Hopkins first -- are reserved for patients and visitors.

Upper levels are full of touches designed to comfort the sickest of the sick. Patient rooms are the largest on the Hopkins campus, so there is ample space for families and equipment. Every patient room is private. Large windows let in plenty of natural light. Colors are uplifting. It's easy to get around.

The design includes more than a few improvements for the staff as well, many suggested by caregivers. Patient pavilions are designed in "pods" of up to 18 beds with a central nursing station, making it easier to monitor patients. "Patient-server stations" located in the halls between every two rooms bring supplies closer to patients. Overhead paging has been eliminated by giving nurses beepers that transmit silent alphanumeric messages. Certain "swing rooms" can be set up either for inpatients or outpatients depending on the needs of the day, and the list goes on and on.

Ultimately, it is these innovations in health care delivery, rather than any Victorian embellishments on the surface, that users are most likely to remember and appreciate.

Practical design

One block to the west, the 250,000-square-foot Bunting-Blaustein Building will house laboratories and offices for doctors and others engaged in cancer research. That's consistent with Hopkins' tradition of locating research space close to the patients who stand to benefit most from that research.

As designed by HDR Architecture of Alexandria, Va., with Zimmer Gunsul Frasca Partnership of Portland, Ore., the building contains five floors of laboratories in the center separated by five levels of mechanical spaces. It's more expensive to create buildings with these "interstitial" spaces, but they make it easier to modify the laboratories without disrupting research work in progress.

On the ends are 10 floors of offices for doctors and researchers working in the labs. No researcher will have an office more than one floor away from his or her lab. This organizational clarity is expressed on the outside of the building, through the arrangement of windows and walls. About the only reference to the past is in the colors of the bricks, a range taken from buildings on Hopkins' Homewood campus.

One reason the research tower looks different from the Weinberg building, aside from the difference in uses, is that Hopkins has separate design standards for buildings west of Broadway. Here, architects are encouraged to create "modern" buildings in which form follows function. This is one project that clearly benefited from those guidelines. It's a direct expression of what happens inside -- just the right approach for a research facility such as this.

A new 'front door'

Stylistic differences aside, one of the greatest contributions made by the two cancer buildings is that they mark the beginnings of a new main entrance to the Hopkins campus.

Locating the clinical tower on Orleans Street gave campus planners room to build other structures nearby, including a critical care tower and a new women's and children's hospital. The research tower, too, may someday have a companion to its west.

Once they're complete, Orleans Street will have replaced Broadway and Wolfe Street as the front door to the medical campus. In the process, the campus will be more strongly oriented than ever to Baltimore's rejuvenated waterfront -- a change that should benefit both the city and the medical institutions.

Abeloff said he likes the notion that Hopkins's newest buildings have different architectural expressions, because they represent two important sides of the institution. To him, one stands for the humanitarian side of patient care and the acknowledgment of the past, while the other stands for scientific research and testing for the future. He sees the two working hand in hand to form "a wonderful mix of science and medicine and humanity."

Hopkins' architects and planners now have a rare opportunity to build on that idea as the guiding theme for the new gateway they're creating on campus.

Pub Date: 10/24/99

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