Will sick people feel better in a hospital that looks like a mall?

February 02, 1992|By Edward Gunts

If the Rouse Company built medical centers, this would be its flagship.

Walking through its glassy front entrance and into its landscaped, skylit atrium, visitors may think they're in an upscale shopping mall or posh resort hotel rather than a place for sick people. Call it a festival hospital, perhaps, or the Suites at Medical Place. ("Having a wonderful operation," the gift shop postcards will read. "Wish you were here.")

Actually, this consumer-friendly environment is the Homer Gudelsky Inpatient Building, an $85 million, 149-bed clinical tower that the University of Maryland Medical System plans to build starting this spring at the northwest corner of Lombard and Greene streets.

Besides providing a new image for America's oldest teaching hospital, the nine-story structure will be a highly visible symbol for UniversityCenter, the west-side neighborhood that has become a focal point for Baltimore's efforts to become a center for the life sciences.

The Gudelsky building is also part of a national trend in which designers are exploring new ways that architecture can help speed medical recovery. Around the country, health care administrators are discovering not only that an improved environment may help their facility increase its market share, but also that patients get well more quickly when they feel good about their surroundings. If that means the normally sterile medical center ought to be more like a Rouse marketplace or Hyatt hotel -- a hospitable hospital -- who can argue with success?

It is no coincidence that preliminary designs of the Gudelsky building bear a striking resemblance to Rouse's Gallery at Harborplace retail center on Pratt street. Its lead designer is the Zeidler Roberts Partnership of Toronto, the same firm Rouse hired for the downtown gallery, and a specialist in designing medical and retail centers. Working with Edmunds & Hyde of Baltimore and Annapolis Associated Architects, Zeidler Roberts drew on its expertise in both fields to create a "shopping center for medical services," as administrators proudly describe it.

Although the design is still evolving, the architects have decided to wrap the addition around the corner of Lombard and Greene streets, providing space for different departments on different levels. But instead of putting it right next to the existing medical center, Zeidler Roberts left a 50-foot-wide circulation zone. It then enclosed that zone with a vaulted skylight to create a dramatic, 12-story atrium that will become the primary indoor space for the expanded facility. The current south hospital's brick exterior will become part of the interior, and corridors of the new building will overlook the landscaped area below like the balconies of an atrium-style hotel. Some patient rooms will also look directly into the atrium, and the existing cafeteria will eventually spill into the space to provide activity at ground level.

This organization is quite ingenius for several reasons. First, the atrium is a powerful orienting device. Although the entrance will remain off Greene Street, where it will be accentuated with a new glass facade, most visitors will have to venture into this new central space in order to reach upper-level clinics or patient areas.

The plan also facilitates expansion. The first building is being designed with the capacity to grow in linear fashion to the north and west. By providing a buffer between the new buildings and the existing facility, the circulation zone makes it easy to preserve the 12-story, 1933 hospital tower, which is being converted to house administrative functions as patient areas are shifted to new buildings on the periphery. The result will be an entirely new medical center -- with the old still very much its core.


The designers' reliance on retailing principles is likely to trouble some architectural purists, who will see it as a further sign of the "malling of America."

Indeed, in recent years, the same people-oriented layouts and merchant-showcasing layouts that Rouse employed so successfully in urban markets such as Faneuil Hall and Harborplace have begun to show up in museums, hotels, nightclubs, even libraries.

Although this creeping festivalization of architecture has fostered a certain sameness of experience -- and underscored how much America has become a consumer-oriented society -- it has come to be regarded as an acceptable antidote to the coldness and sterility of modern architecture as practiced in the 1950s and '60s. Just last month, the American Institute of Architects bestowed its highest honor on Benjamin Thompson, the architect who pioneered the design formula behind Rouse's urban marketplaces.

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