Building on the Past
Marisa Bartolucci -- Interior Design, 2/1/2005 12:00:00 AM
Fresh, open, bright—these are a few of the cardinal qualities that inspire viewers to tune in to Katie Couric on the Today show each morning. It's probably no coincidence that these same qualities are the hallmark of a new, state-of-the-art medical facility designed by Guenther 5 Architects and built in honor of Couric's husband, who died of colon cancer in 1998 at age 42. The Jay Monahan Center for Gastrointestinal Health at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/ Weill Cornell showcases a multifunctional environment that Guenther 5 and Couric hope will set a new standard for health-care facilities.
"When I started my practice some 25 years ago, the quality of hospital design was dismal," says Guenther 5 Architects principal Robin Guenther. "I realized you need to use an industrial-design model in order to take hold of the 'spaghetti in the walls.'"
The concept for the 3,500-square-foot center, which combines innovative educational resources with cancer-screening facilities and exam rooms all on one floor, emerged directly from the frustrations Couric and her husband experienced when he was ill. "We found that tracking down information on all the treatment and clinical-trial options was exhausting in and of itself, not to mention then going from place to place for tests and appointments," she says. After Monahan's death, Couric, along with her husband's gastroenterologist, Dr. Mark Pochapin, spearheaded the development of the all-in-one center. "We saw several firms that gave us fancy presentations," recalls Dr. Pochapin. "Robin, by contrast, simply emphasized the need to combine form and function."
User-friendliness is what makes the Jay Monahan Center so groundbreaking. Much like the Today show studio, it's situated on the ground floor, next to a busy plaza, and is equipped with speakers. In good weather the center can literally open its doors and engage passersby during lectures and events. Inside, the square-shape plan encompasses a multipurpose public space that leads to a main corridor, off of which lie five exam and three consultation rooms as well as a conference room.
"The trend in healthcare design these days is to offer screening and diagnosis, so hospitals are increasingly catering to a 'well group,'" explains Guenther. "Usually this results in the use of expensive materials and meticulous wood joinery—design that is all about control and precision. That's a reasonable message for legal or financial offices, but not for a hospital."
Guenther relies instead on a spa aesthetic. For the Jay Monahan Center, the architect selected glass mosaic tiles, artisanal plaster walls, and sculptural wood-veneered MDF panels and employed them in large planes to relax the eye. A committed environmentalist, Guenther also specified as many sustainable products as possible, a decision that has health benefits as well. Paint and adhesives are low-VOC. Cabinetry has no formaldehyde in the substrate. Floors are bamboo.
The reception desk, a curving form of maple-veneered MDF inset with glass mosaic tiles in blues and greens, is at the core and forms one side of the open volume visitors enter from the street; this versatile space serves as an education area that, with the addition of more seats, easily transforms into an informal lecture hall. It's defined by two banks of maple- and walnut-veneered MDF, each equipped with three computers that allow visitors access to online medical information. One of the banks is on wheels so it can be moved to create more room for seating during the informational lectures that the center frequently hosts. The very fluidity of the space adds to its appeal.
The southern part of the education area transitions into a waiting area. Two drywall partitions are lined with nine wood-framed plasma-screen TVs that display a combination of light entertainment and videos on gastrointestinal health. A pantry, formed by another veneered MDF partition, backs up to a sitting area with a mix of side and lounge chairs. From here, the main corridor leads to the exam rooms in the core and the consultation rooms along the perimeter.
Guenther's choice of contemporary furnishings—benches by Karim Rashid, stools by Josep Liusca—enhances the informality of the space but also lends it sophistication. Contemporary artwork adds visual interest and warmth, a plus in any medical setting.
Indeed, warmth was one of Couric's overarching themes for the center. Its "integrated and compassionate design," as she calls it, gives patients and their loved ones comfort and, more important, hope.