Arts News: March 2008 Archives



Natural Light is key to the philosophy of

Natural Light is key to the philosophy of "patient-centered" hospital design

My first trip to a hospital came after I discovered my arm had a new right angle.

It was 1979. I was five years old. I'd dropped out of a tree and snapped the bones in my right forearm. I don't remember if I was in a lot of pain, but do remember asking my mother if I was going to die.

While the emergency room did a lot for my arm, it did little for my state of mind. The hospital smelled funny. It was gloomy and dingy and strange. I've since forgotten most of the details, but I do recall this: the buzzing of fluorescent lights and the feeling that I was in a place where bad things happened.

I wanted to get out. Soon.

It's a commonplace experience. We get sick, go to the hospital, dread our time there. Hospitals scare us. They're big and impersonal and boring. They force us to focus on things we'd rather ignore: illness, chaos, death.

Plus, they're expensive. Heart-bypass surgery, for instance, requires a long convalescence. The longer it takes, the more it costs.

When the Ashley River Tower, the Medical University of South Carolina's new heart, vascular, and digestive disease hospital, opened on Feb. 4, it got a lot of attention from newspapers around the state, and justifiably so.

It's big -- 641,000 square feet with 156 single-patient rooms, including 32 beds in a state-of-the-art intensive care unit. It's new -- a team of local and international architects designed it to reflect the neighboring urban landscape, with elegant curves echoing Charleston's nautical history. And it has a whopping price tag -- about $400 million, including all the equipment. It's the first of five proposed facilities.

What really got the attention of reporters and editors, though, was the role of visual art in the facility: MUSC amassed one of the largest collections of art by local and regional artists on permanent display -- paintings, drawings, photographs, sculptures, pottery, and even traditional Lowcountry sweetgrass baskets -- with the rationale that it will help sick people feel better faster.

More than 850 works were purchased with the help of Mark Sloan, director of the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art. Organizers placed art on every floor, every patient room, and in every waiting area in the hospital believing they would reduce stress and facilitate healing.

It was a no-brainer news story.

Still, I had more questions than answers.

MUSC wanted to showcase the work of local and regional artists, build a facility unmistakably grounded in a distinct place, and support art by educating the public. And, of course, there was the feel-good, New Age-y mantra of artful healing. That all sounds terrific, but why?

I personally believe art helps people, especially sick people and their families. Perhaps, as doctors straightened my crooked arm with a plaster cast, some aesthetic beauty, natural light, and smart interior design would have made my first hospital trip less dreadful for my mother and me.

But hospitals are in the business of medicine, not art. Why spend the time and effort searching, buying, collecting, and presenting hundreds of works of art? Why go to great lengths to launch an intense fund-raising campaign that exclusively targeted private sources?

What's the whole story behind the Ashley River Tower?

It turns out that ART, as MUSC's new tower is called, is among a new breed of hospital popping up around the country. These structures have been shorn of the Bauhaus severity of postwar America, in which hospitals, like the one I went to in 1979, were pretty much big concrete boxes with some windows in the front more suitable for religious ascetics and Spartan warriors than people in need of medical care. Benefitting from 30 years of sociological research and architectural innovation, these new buildings are being conceived with the patient in mind -- more natural light, more natural decor, and, importantly, more art in patient rooms, waiting areas, everywhere.

This is not just about the meeting of art and medicine. Research does indeed show patients benefit from exposure to nature and beauty during recovery. But there's another dimension here, and that is how art is being used in smart and sophisticated ways to help solve major economic and management problems that hospitals face in the 21st century -- soaring health care costs, patient satisfaction, fiercer competition, staff retention, 76 million baby boomers.

As we enter into a new age of building design, hospitals are increasingly turning to art. The Ashley River Tower has far more than a nice collection that helps people; medical experts and building designers are hailing it as a new architectural standard of patient care and cutting-edge hospitality.


March 30, 2008 10:42 AM | | Comments (1)

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This page is a archive of entries in the Arts News category from March 2008.

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