Public health's home


April 19, 2004|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

A conference room with sweeping views of Baltimore's Inner Harbor. An upper-level fitness center and roof terrace. An in-house gallery featuring works by Robert Rauschenberg and Jim Dine.

Is this a description of Baltimore's newest corporate headquarters? An upscale hotel?

No, it's the $130 million home of the Johns Hopkins University's Bloomberg School of Public Health, whose final phases will be dedicated at 4:30 p.m. Friday.

Although the entire project has taken 10 years to complete, school leaders say it has materialized more quickly than they initially thought it would.

"If you told me in 1994 that this would all be done by now, I would have said, `Not a chance,'" said Alfred Sommer, dean of the school since 1990. "It's a wonderful addition. We've made a huge leap forward by more than doubling the amount of space we had 14 years ago."

The stepped-up pace of construction, he said, is a reflection of the growing interest in public health worldwide and the desire on the part of donors to support Hopkins' work in the field.

"It happened because people started to understand the importance of public health, and that Hopkins was the leading school of public health," Sommer said. "And they felt it was an investment they could make."

The physical space is "a tangible representation of how this school ... has really reasserted itself in the last few years," he continued. "There's a wealth of issues that need to be addressed - tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, SARS, bioterrorism preparedness, heart disease, cancer, obesity. Public health is as important today as it ever was, and we're at the top of our game."

"This is the age of public health," agreed Michael Linehan, the school's director of facilities management. "Especially after 9/11. Student enrollment is going up. Funding is going up. People here understand the importance of prevention rather than trying to fix a problem after it's occurred."

Hopkins is consistently ranked as a world leader in public-health education, and the Bloomberg school receives nearly a quarter of all federal research funds awarded to the 32 U.S. schools of public health.

"When you say `Hopkins' in the United States, people think of medicine," Linehan said. "But when you say `Hopkins' around the world, they think of public health."

Named for New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a billionaire businessman who served as chairman of Hopkins' board of trustees from 1995 to 2001, the school was the first institution of its kind and is the largest school of public health in the world. Its motto is "Protecting Health, Saving Lives - Millions at a Time."

The school's nine-level home fills the block bounded by Washington, Monument, Wolfe and McElderry streets in East Baltimore. The "new" portions were constructed starting in 1994 as an addition to the nine-level, 360,000- square-foot building that housed the school since 1926. But the addition, containing about 400,000 square feet in six phases, is now larger than the original.

The expansion was designed by Ziger Snead of Baltimore to accommodate the school's growing population, which includes 1,735 graduate students from 78 nations and more than 1,000 faculty members.

Ziger Snead was the architect for all six phases, with Steve Ziger as principal in charge and Nils Eddy as project manager. John Shorb, Mark Treon, Glenn Shrum, Olga Mendel and two former Ziger Sneaders, John Orsini and Jim Miller, rounded out the design team.

The expansion contains laboratories and offices on the upper levels and a 350-seat auditorium and other gathering spaces on the lower levels. Many of the new labs will be occupied by the school's Malaria Research Institute, which is working on vaccines and other methods to eradicate the disease.

Spaces where students can study or hang out include a coffee shop, fitness facility, lounges and two multistory reading courts, at least one of which will double as a gallery.

As Sommer and Linehan explain it, the school never had campus grounds the way most schools do, and as its population grew, students voiced a desire for more places to spend time before and after classes.

"On a normal campus, you can go outside," Sommer said. "Here, people were on top of each other. ... The students complained, very appropriately, that there was no place where they could feel good or their spirits could soar."

Lacking outdoor space for their expansion, the architects created an "internal campus," putting light wells to use as reading courts and creating corridors wide enough to serve as extended student lounges.

"We're using this entire block very much up," Linehan said. "Every square inch of it."

What makes the expansion particularly unusual as a construction project is that the total project was planned in the 1990s and designed so it could be constructed in phases, as funds materialized, and Hopkins has stayed true to the original design.

"Literally, the construction team that began here 10 to 12 years ago has never left the site," Sommer said. "Just as we were finishing one thing, we were able to move on to the next. And it was all built as it was planned before we ever put a spade in the ground."

Besides Bloomberg, Sommer said, key donors included Baltimore philathropist Nan Pinkard, Tennessee physician Harry Feinstone, medical professor Huntington "Skip" Sheldon, Microsoft executive Bill Gates, co-chairman of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Becton, Dickinson medical technology company.

Having the same architect for all six phases helped the work go smoothly, Linehan said. "It's been critical to keeping the continuity of the project."

Each time a new phase opens, students have taken over every inch of space right away. "I don't know were they were before," said Eddy, the project manager. "It's very satisfying."

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