Body and Soul
Inspired design elevates Christus St. Elizabeth's outpatient center in Beaumont, Texas
Nancy Princenthal -- Interior Design, 11/1/2004 12:00:00 AM
From the moment that patients leave the parking garage at the Christus Outpatient Pavilion in Beaumont, Texas, they encounter an interior of eminent refinement. Wood, stone, water, sunshine, and a judicious deployment of tinted glass helped Hellmuth, Obata + Kassabaum shape space that quietly exalts well-being.
Entry is via a light-filled gallery glazed along one side. Lining this 120-foot-long procession, seating groups overlook an outdoor pool of water flowing through a black slate trough—and the water also throws limpid reflections on the gallery's inner wall, paneled in American cherry. Overhead, the ceiling line is broken by intermittent folds and the tapering white forms of Jozeph Forakis pendant fixtures.
The regular rhythm of illumination becomes syncopated at the gallery's end, where a gently ecclesiastical light shines through the lavender, tangerine, gold, and lemon glass panels set into the deep rectangular cutouts punctuating a masonry wall—a foretaste of the central architectural element in the second floor's nondenominational meditation chapel. The legacy of Christus Health's founding order, the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word, the chapel is indisputably the project's most distinctive feature. This 400-square-foot space holds eight rows of upholstered cherrywood benches, and pendant fixtures, each a string of three lights, create a volume of illumination in votivelike counterpoint to the light that enters laterally through tinted glass panels similar to the ones in the masonry wall at the end of the ground-floor's gallery.
There, double doors open to the outpatient-care pavilion's reception area, a triple-height volume where nature is effectively brought indoors. A pool of running water, echoing the one outside the gallery, provides an aural screen as well. Suspended above the reception desk, a sculpture of brushed-aluminum leaves carries light from a clerestory overhead.
"Using materials in a way that breaks down mass" was a motivating principle for HOK senior associate Dallas Felder, who served as senior project designer for his first foray into health care. Being a novice was an advantage, freeing him from habits endemic to the hospital field. For instance, he says, he wasn't afraid to "move things off the module," as in his use of irregularly ordered windows.
Most important, he insisted on avoiding the sterility stereotypically associated with hospitals. Natural materials serve as way-finding devices at the 260,000-square-foot facility, as cherrywood handrails lead staff, patients, and visitors through their medical journey. A firm believer that design should demonstrate respect for the environment and that architecture is a spiritual and social practice, Felder was influenced by one of his Harvard Design School professors, the late Samuel Mockbee.
Attention to sustainable materials epitomizes HOK, which has earned a distinguished record for ecological responsibility. (The firm has received five "Top 10 Green Project" citations from the AIA.) For example, masonry at Christus is Renaissance Masonry Units, a manufactured stone formed by eco-friendly steam-driven compression. Unglazed ceramic floor tile, used extensively, is easy to maintain with toxin-free wet mopping.
Carpet imparts an almost domestic warmth to places such as the registration area, situated right off reception. This residentially scaled space is furnished with cherrywood seating upholstered in the jewel tones found in traditional libraries. Lamps with glass dome shades complete the effect.
Inevitably, the atmosphere must become more clinical on the three medical levels, but not aggressively so. "Sometimes, design ends where patient care begins," says HOK director of health-care interiors Nancy Coleman, who has more than 10 years of experience in the sector. That's a mistake she guards against.
Her role as "patient advocate," as she puts it, involves meeting needs from stress reduction to safety. Clarity, user-friendliness, and maintenance guide her in the making of countless decisions—on items as large as ensuring that all floors are nonslip and as small as choosing the curtain fabric of a cubicle.