A healing feeling

Johns Hopkins Hospital reveals bold, soothing sides in two new buildings.


October 24, 1999|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun Architecture Critic

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.

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