FlyOver: 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)

fiddlerphoto-2_resized.jpgI don't know Carol Furtwangler, but I'm sure we'd have a lot to talk about. She's the Post and Courier's theater critic (in Charleston, S.C.) and she turns reviews around on a regular basis. Problem is, she doesn't have much room to do a proper job.

For Fiddler on the Roof, a production that opened Friday and that was the first time the Charleston Stage Company had collaborated with the Charleston Symphony Orchestra, her review got six paragraphs. By the time she'd finished with the requisite exposition, there was little inch-count to make a sound judgment.

I know what this is like. When I was a daily reporter, I wrote reviews that we shoehorned into the smallest of spaces. Aware of space restrictions, and cynical about being cut even further by insensitive copy editors, I wrote tight without much nuance, even if that meant veering into hyperbole.

In Furtwangler's case, she leads by saying Fiddler on the Roof was "a triumphant production," but doesn't expound. Inference does the work for her: The very fact that Charleston Stage did this big, ambitious, and expensive project with the CSO made it triumphant. The next five graphs of the review were devoted to who did what and when -- in other words, the exposition.

I have to give the P&C credit: It devotes space to the arts. I spent years writing overnight reviews that ended up near the obituaries. That's pretty disheartening. Though Furtwangler's reviews are small, at least they are present. And they are present on page 2A -- a great endorsement for the arts.

Still, why not more? Furtwangler's review had to compete with wire copy from the Associated Press, stories on J.K. Rowling's suing of a Potter fan and Frank Sinatra Jr. getting a star on the Walk of Fame (with a large picture that takes up a lot of space). From a editorial perspective, one has to weigh the value of copy. For my money, the local theater review is the most valuable. The other stuff can be found elsewhere, but a newspaper can't buy a local theater review from the wires. That's unique and therefore the most valuable.

I could talk about how daily newspapers don't get it (that it's not enough to put material out there; that they must also engage readers in order to keep them), but I think the P&C does a pretty good job. Like I said, at least the arts are present in the paper. Other publications are doing away with them altogether.

The problem with tight space is this: Furtlanger wasn't able to be accurate. It is indeed a triumph of sorts for a city's professional orchestra to accompany a city's largest professional theater company. But that isn't enough.

I attended the opening of Fiddler. The show was not triumphant. I would say that it could have been triumphant, that it had all the ingredients for triumph, but it was far from that for one key reason: John Fennell, the lead actor (pictured).

Aside from a passel of debits (uneven pacing, stalled momentum, that dreaded sound problem that continues to plague Charleston Stage shows) and bevy of credits (great costumes, a terrific dream scene, and touching chemistry between actors, especially between Tevye and Golda), Fennell just couldn't sing well.

Maybe he was sick, I don't know. But his singing voice was bad. His acting was superb. He was very, very funny. But his singing? Not good. With his character playing a central role in the story, and with the CSO providing the music to which this central role sang, the collaboration was hardly triumphant.

I would give this show a mixed review. (So did CP critic Kinsey Labberton. She noted the sound problems and Fennell's lackluster performance. She also asked why choose Fiddler when a historic collaboration between two major arts groups in Charleston was an opportunity to be really daring. A fair observation.)

Because it's the obligation of the critic to explain himself when leveling a mixed review, he or she requires space. Without that, you're stuck giving a mere thumbs up or thumbs down. If Furtwangler wants to try her hand with the City Paper, we'd give her the space she needs. She's welcome to call me anytime.

Like I said, I think we'd have a lot to talk about.

Cross-posted from Unscripted.

March 8, 2008 1:48 PM | | Comments (2)


Jeff Day, at The State newspaper (in Columbia, S.C.), reminds us that Renee Fleming, at the top of her game as the Met's leading opera diva, got her start at Spoleto. His article today also serves as a reminder that artists of Fleming's caliber had to start somewhere. In fact, Fleming graduated from the same small New York state school that I did: The Crane School of Music at SUNY College at Potsdam. She eventually went on the Eastman, as many Crane graduates did. Before being taken on the Metropolitan Opera, she gigged with Spoleto, just as many artists past and present have. Fleming is among opera's elite, but her journey took her to many out-of-the-way places outside of New York, London, and Milan.

In recent weeks, Renee Fleming, one of the biggest opera stars in the world, has been singing the role of the doomed Desdemona in the Metropolitan Opera's "Otello."

But 21 years ago, she was a young singer just starting out when she filled a supporting role in the opera "Platee" at the Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston. The opera was reviewed by The New York Times, but she wasn't even mentioned.

She was back at Spoleto in 1989, singing the role of the Countess in "The Marriage of Figaro," which she also performed at the Italian version of the festival.

That time she got noticed.

"Spoleto was actually my training ground," Fleming said in an interview from New York last week. "I spent three summers at the festival both in Charleston and Italy. It was a terrific experience -- I loved both places."

Full story . . .

Cross-posted from Unscripted.

March 2, 2008 9:30 AM |

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