Go Ducks, Go
Sport and spa mix at Zimmer Gunsul Frasca's athletic medical center for the University of Oregon
C.C. Sullivan -- Interior Design, 1/1/2008 12:00:00 AM
Sidelined by injury, not even the most elite of college athletes expect too much. The young stars, relegated to over-lit basement training rooms, suffer decor as punishing as sprained ankles and pulled hamstrings. Not so at the University of Oregon. The scenic Eugene campus now boasts a spalike sanctuary of sports healing. In ways abstract and concrete, this center of holistic treatment reinforces the university's athletic brand—a crucial focus for competing nationally.
The high standards of the Oregon Ducks medical center won't come as a surprise to anyone a little familiar with NCAA action. Renowned for colorful uniforms, the school fields a football team that dresses in 300 outfit combinations and four helmet choices: black, white, green, and yellow. Not content with typical uniforms, the Ducks wouldn't settle for a typical training room either. What they got is a facility like few, if any, in the U.S.
Surprisingly free of color shock, the Athletic Training Service Center is a supremely tasteful affair. Zimmer Gunsul Frasca Architects design partner Gene Sandoval and principal Randy Stegmeier started by devising an unwaveringly muted palette of clear-finished wood, treated glass, and neutral furniture. Layered over this Zen background are motivational sports graphics and images—Peter Zumthor meets ESPN2.
"We had two projects, branding and healing," Sandoval says of the renovation and expansion. "Waiting for the trainer should be as pleasant as possible, with lighting levels and furnishings that help the athlete relax." To that end, ZGF worked with the school's medical and training staff to create three large socializing zones among the treatment rooms and staff offices. Adding these places for lame jocks to simply hang out made the center expand to 15,000 square feet, three times its original size.
Sandoval and Stegmeier found it easy to relate to the plight of the athletes who would use the center. Sandoval was a competitive swimmer; Stegmeier enjoys triathlons. Both know the pain and loneliness of serious injury, and both have tolerated the dull, thoughtless environments that pass for healing spaces.
The designers' sports experience came in handy in another way, too. U. of O. allowed them less than a year to complete this highly customized, technically complex project. Given their stylish resolution, it's clear that these endurance contenders were equally primed for the sprint.
"Our research, which included a three-day plane trip to four other universities, followed by a charrette on campus, showed us that these facilities were missing a home, a place for students from different sports to come together," Stegmeier says. "That drove our early concepts." Cost inevitably grew with the program. Fortunately a big donor came through, reportedly U. of O. alum Phil Knight, the founder of Nike.
"Going to the trainer" may conjure up images of a high-tech triage zone, but not so here. Instead, clever detailing and space planning pleasantly camouflage the more serious aspects. You might not even notice the seven medical examination spaces, including ones for a dentist and an ophthalmologist, as well as the pharmacy, X-ray facility, and conference room.
Alongside hot and cold plunge pools, the U. of O now boasts three hydrotherapy treadmill pools—reputedly the most for any sports team, college or pro. In addition to workaday exercise equipment, you'll find such exotic offerings as the Bod Pod (for calculating body fat) and, in peculiar proximity, a Nutrition Bar (for downing protein tonics). Massage and taping tables, finished in smooth black vinyl, sit on hidden hydraulic lifts brawny enough to elevate 300-pound linebackers.
These amenities, not to mention the MTV Cribs vibe, have attracted notice in the sports world. "Some of my colleagues think it's over the top, that it will encourage people to just hang out. But we haven't found that," says Kim Terrell, an alumna who oversees the training staff and treats football injuries. "Being injured is bad enough. The room doesn't have to be punishment." Such a logical application of evidence-based design to holistic health care is long overdue.
Even ZGF's boolah-boolah graphics lift spirits and promote healing. Sandblasted into glass, etched into vinyl, singed into wood—with a real branding iron—the graphics might strike the uninitiated as overly literal. But the bulky, sweatshirted tough guy silhouetted on one glass partition, for example, is no clip-art generic. He's a fictional U. of O. track legend, his outline filled in with the names of coaches and athletes who've carried on the winning tradition in real life.
Compared to the usual trophy cases and plaque walls, he and his fellow graphic figures are appealingly integral to the architecture. Vinyl covering the front of the Nutrition Bar even gives voice to current student athletes. The pale gray material is etched with words that the students free-associated in describing the ultimate training room: Totally wicked. Boombastic. Futurama.