The Weill Cornell Medical Center is a sprawling complex on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. The campus includes several prominent buildings, among them the Weill Medical College of Cornell University, a teaching hospital, and research facilities. With the opening last year of the Weill Greenberg Center, the first clinical building in Weill Cornell's 109-year history, the medical center establishes a new paradigm in ambulatory healthcare. The 15-story, 330,000-square-foot flagship, designed by New York–based Polshek Partnership Architects and by Ballinger of Philadelphia, will house the most advanced clinical facilities for departments such as dermatology, hypertension treatment, otolaryngology, in vitro fertilization, and cardiology.
Polshek Partnership was the architect for the base building and all the public spaces. The firm worked closely with Ballinger, which designed the conference center and clinical practices, including reception areas and exam and waiting rooms. Polshek partner Todd Schliemann explains the strategy: "There's a trend for the delivery of healthcare away from a threatening environment. The goal is to deinstitutionalize the experience and create an atmosphere that is perceived as a familiar everyday event."
The building's translucent, vertically faceted curtain wall is a deliberate departure from the architecture of the surrounding buildings. By using low-iron glazing, tinted with a chevron pattern of white ceramic fritting, Schliemann says Polshek was able to create "a soft, elegant veil over the façade." The contrast with the campus's older masonry buildings brings the Weill Greenberg Center out of that institutional context and into the larger city, establishing a new, refined image for healthcare facilities.
The interiors are no less inspired. In both the public spaces and the clinics, Polshek and Ballinger pursued a spa theme, or salus per aquam (Latin for "health through water"), which suggested a palette of warm materials—wood, travertine walls and floors, and Cor-Ten steel accents, with soothing neutral colors, reflective and cascading water features in the lobby, and, of course, an abundance of natural light. The lobby is served, like a spa resort, by a convenient vehicle drop-off with valet parking. From the lobby, escalators ascend to the Patient Welcome and Resource Center, which is open to the public. The center offers patients and families a quiet place to rest between appointments and browse through medical information in one of its lounges, on a computer workstation, or in the Health Education Library.
Architect Eric Swanson led the design team for Ballinger. He acknowledges that evidence-based design now drives the strategies of most new healthcare facilities. The goal of evidence-based design is to create environments that are therapeutic, restorative, economical, and efficient and that increase patient satisfaction while reducing both patient and staff stress. The architect and client make decisions based on information gathered from research and past project evaluations. The architect then uses the findings to create the best research-backed solutions for the client's particular needs. During the planning phase of this building, the architects worked closely with Weill Cornell's Physician Organization, which is charged with implementing a new vision for ambulatory patient care through an initiative called Weill Cornell: We Care.
At the Weill Greenberg Center, the Ballinger team relied on materials to facilitate wayfinding. The reception area on every patient floor is located on the north side of the building, making orientation consistent throughout the building. Exam rooms occupy the interior, and doctors' offices claim the southern and eastern perimeters. Reception areas are framed by backdrops of Cor-Ten steel, whose rust patina Swanson says is appropriate here: "It's a real material, natural, durable, and urbane. It has a rich texture." Bronze letters on the steel identify the clinic, and patients are directed either to the left or right, depending on their destination. Signage, etched into frosted-glass panels along the corridors, leads patients to the waiting rooms, which are rendered in neutral colors with midcentury modern leather furniture and high-end artwork selected by an art consultant. The serenity of the center's waiting rooms supports the premise that there is a clear relationship between design and patient perceptions—the more attractive the environment, the higher the perceived quality of medical care and the lower the anxiety.
Ballinger focused a great deal of attention on the exam rooms. First of all, the firm designed the cabinetry to conceal the medical instruments that are usually on display. Finishes were carefully specified. For instance, when cork floors were rejected due to maintenance concerns, the architects found a rubber-vinyl alternative that looks like cork and supports the spa theme. The architects also concentrated on the lighting, creating an array of options. There's a single, recessed downlight in the ceiling; under-cabinet lighting; and task lighting. This strategy allows the physician to choose the appropriate illumination for the circumstances.
The Weill Greenberg Center is a Pebble Project, a joint research effort between the nonprofit Center for Health Design and selected healthcare providers. The purpose of the Pebble Project initiative is to cause a "ripple effect" in American healthcare by providing documented examples of facilities whose design has made a difference in the level of care and financial performance. Although findings on Weill Greenberg have not yet been published, there is preliminary feedback suggesting that the center's goals have been surpassed and that it will be a model for the next generation of healthcare design.
Sara Hart is a New York–based writer who has written extensively for publications such as Dwell and Architectural Record, where she was a former senior editor.