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The Charlotte R. Bloomberg Children's Center: What it Says

September 19, 2011

Look down Wolfe Street from the steps of the Johns Hopkins School of Nursing and the multi-colored windows and brick recesses of the new clinical building (NCB) lend the playful look of a Lego set. You almost want to reach up and insert a purple cube. Stroll down the street a bit and more colors and movements come into play at the building’s base – a rainbow of paneled windows marked by countless white waves and brush strokes in the glass known as ceramic frit. Suddenly, you find yourself removed from an urban environment.

At Wolfe and Orleans Streets you come to the soaring curve of a multi-hued façade and wonder what’s around the corner. Looking down Orleans you can see the twin two-story high enclosed bridges reaching over Orleans from the parking garage – one to the Sheikh Zayed Tower and the other to The Charlotte R. Bloomberg Children's Center – but you can’t see around the curve. Looking up Orleans from Broadway the view is similarly obstructed. Only after you find a spot on Orleans directly across from the new main entrance to The Johns Hopkins Hospital do you take in the entirety of the building, its scope and scale, the space it fills.

“It is big but its size says we can do more,” says nurse Sherrie Boyer. “I see it reaching out to the community more, broadening the horizons of what we do here.”

“Colorful,” says Heather Kirk from the Emergency Department, who notes she can see the Children’s Center façade across East Baltimore from her Canton rooftop. “It looks like stained glass in the sky.

“Honestly, it’s absolutely outrageously amazing,” adds anesthesia resident Michael Grant. “There’s a sense of awe about this building, a buzz about this place.”

No question this is one powerhouse of a building designed by the Chicago-based architectural firm Perkins+Will, and people are talking about it. But a longer look suggests its power is not overpowering. This vast amount of brick, glass and steel does not loom over you as much as it stretches out before you and to you. The playfulness of the Children’s Center curve diminishes its height. You can’t help but look up but also in, which may have something to do with the depth of the façade’s window boxes created by installation artist Spencer Finch.

The notch in the façade, a dimple in the face of the Children’s Center, pulls you in, too. From there, where Bloomberg turns toward Zayed, you follow the long two-story canopy connecting the children’s and adult sides to a flying wall enclosing a meditation garden – one of a series of gardens reaching out like an arm below the adult bridge. The treed vehicular entry plaza – a football field long – expands before you. You notice other signs of green, saplings lining Orleans, and street lamps from medicine of another era. Light, nature and even nostalgia are on full display.

“The overall frit helps dematerialize the façade, the gardens help soften your approach, and the canopy adds visual clarity and unifies the entry, removing any level of confusion about how to get into the institution,” says Hopkins consulting architect Allen Kolkowitz. “It is the point of arrival.”

Sally MacConnell, Johns Hopkins Health System vice president for facilities, stresses that the importance of defining by design a point of arrival cannot be overstated. Patients and families anxiously approach a vast academic medical institution like Johns Hopkins in crisis, she notes, and peel away first impressions like layers of an onion. They need to feel not lost or overwhelmed, but oriented, safe and secure.

“We spent a lot of time thinking about how to make this building of 1.5 million square feet approachable, how to bring it to a human scale,” says MacConnell. “We want people to know where they’re going and to feel as comfortable as possible through the building environment and landscaping.”

How? Through the delineation of the bridges, canopy, courtyard and predominant colors – greens for the adult side, blues for the children’s – of the two towers. Way-finding to and in the new building may be more by design than signage.

“The design visually reinforces and reaffirms your arrival several times before you actually penetrate the front door of the building,” explains Hopkins architect Michael Iati. “You get to this boulevard, which weaves you to this tower where you see the glass and your destination. The bridges help define this big urban space as you pull into the entry loop, and now there are neighboring doors for the adult and children’s sides you can discern for that final moment of arrival, which is important when you’re stressed out.”

“The building itself,” adds Kolkowitz, “has a way-finding personality.”

Integration with the existing campus and East Baltimore was a priority, too. The abutting buildings fit in neatly, and the new structure’s red bricks seem to mimic community bricks. And like the original Johns Hopkins Hospital, the new building sits on a hill.

“The transparency of the building and it still being a bit of that beacon on the hill is a response to the community,” Kolkowitz says. “This building is not exclusionary, it’s part of the same civic ebb and flow.”

Interestingly, this new front door also reverts to the original Johns Hopkins front yard entrance constructed on Broadway in 1889. But for all its practicality, its successor in 1979 – the Wolfe Street entrance to Hopkins – fell short as a main doorway to an expanding institution with too many doors.

“We used to joke that you could drive up Orleans Street and be in Delaware before you realized you missed the hospital,” laughs MacConnell. No more.

The new front door is visually identifiable and accessible, and with the design reorganizes the hospital – moving its operating rooms and epicenter to the south – and eases navigation not only in the Bloomberg and Zayed towers but throughout the entire existing campus. And through its design, the new building opens the door to Johns Hopkins medicine in the 21st century and beyond.

“The front entry courtyard, the canopy, the front gardens and the bridges, the design of the building itself all come back to this very important mission of allowing the free and forward movement of research, teaching and patient care,” says Kolkowitz.

“How do we support patient care?” MacConnell asks. “By creating an environment that allows our staff to be as great as we know they are. This building does that.”

This is one in a series of articles on the architecture, art and design of the new clinical buildings – The Charlotte R. Bloomberg Children’s Center and the Sheikh Zayed Tower – that will appear in Johns Hopkins publications and websites this fall and next winter and spring. The new buildings open in April 2012. Next in this series: Ambient atriums, lobbies and the loop, points of reception.