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Cancer Center design focuses on patients

Wednesday, October 30, 2002

By Patricia Lowry, Post-Gazette Architecture Critic





When words nobody wants to hear spill out of a doctor's mouth and hang in the air, does the patient ever really hear them?

New York artist Jeffrey Maron's bird-like, aluminum sculpture, "Spirits' Flight," is suspended within Hillman Cancer Center's atrium, which links the patient care and research pavilions. (Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette)

Having a family member or friend along who can absorb information and offer support helps. At the new Hillman Cancer Center, they are accommodated every step of the way. That's one of the ways architecture is making life better for cancer patients -- and for the researchers looking for cures just across the hall.

If that sounds like a television commercial voice-over, be assured it's hard not to come away enthusiastic from a tour of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute's Hillman Cancer Center.

The $130 million building is a confident, conservative complement to UPMC Shadyside, its partner across Centre Avenue. But like a geode, the red brick and limestone Hillman Cancer Center holds a gem-like secret -- the quietly spectacular, glass-block-walled atrium that links two pavilions, one devoted to patient care and the other to research.

Dr. Ronald Herberman, the center's director, wanted to unite research and care in a single building.

"[The architects] did it in such a way that the researchers are constantly reminded what their work is about," said Herberman, adding that patients are reminded, too, of ongoing research.

The atrium, which trendier architects (and a trendier client) might have interpreted as a wedge slicing through the building, instead can be seen as a literal and metaphorical opening. The building breaks apart, revealing crystalline walls and a green-and-white garden -- an opening to transparency, communication and collaboration between its research and patient care pavilions.

"I was particularly sensitive to the people who walk in here," said architect Mike Marcu. With cancer patients, "there can be a sense of fear and panic. The idea is to make the place as warm and comfortable as possible and not make it in any way like a hospital."

Indeed, the atrium feels more like the lobby of a posh hotel or urban department store than a hospital. And in fact, Hillman Cancer Center isn't a hospital; it's a for-profit, outpatient clinic conjoined to a research center. Good design is seen as a good investment, one that will enable the center to attract top researchers and doctors and their patients.

Marcu heads IKM, a Pittsburgh firm that dates to 1908 and is best known recently for its careful and creative insertion of a juvenile and family court facility into the landmark Allegheny County Jail. For the Hillman Cancer Center, IKM was responsible for the exterior design of the entire building as well as the interiors of the atrium and the Research Pavilion.

On the outside, the architects subtly varied the fenestration patterns, establishing individual identities for the two pavilions.

The main pedestrian and vehicular entrance, on Centre Avenue, also must accommodate a pedestrian bridge across Centre to the administrative wing, built above one of Shadyside Hospital's parking garages. The gently arcing, steel and glass bridge gets the job done without calling too much attention to itself, much in the spirit of the building itself.

The architects designed a cleaner, equally prominent facade on the Baum Boulevard side, where the atrium opening creates a sort of hinged effect, making the building a better fit on its site. The research and clinical pavilions, on different planes, are joined to create an obtuse-angled building that can be viewed in its entirety from either direction. It's a striking, stabilizing addition to a commercial corridor known for fast-food and auto-related businesses. But don't try entering here; for now, it's an exit only.

Another local firm, Radelet McCarthy, founded in 1993, did the interior planning and design of the outpatient clinic, known as The William Cooper Pavilion, honoring the oncologist who led the campaign for philanthropic support of the center.

The building's primary patrons, Henry and Elsie Hillman, also helped guide aesthetic decisions, including the overriding one -- that the center should take its design cues from Shadyside Hospital. The Hillmans and their children also played a role in the choice of artists and garden designer.

The long, linear garden holds lush beds of white-flowering orchids (Phalaenopsis and Dendrobium) and peace lilies (Spathiphyllum) under a canopy of 25-year-old ficus trees (Ficus benjamina) from the greenhouses of Johnstown garden designer George Griffith, who has worked with the Hillmans for more than 30 years.

The plants are set in beds faced in the same polished black granite that lines one of the atrium's walls. A stair and walkway of rough-faced black granite leads through the garden and up to the Baum Boulevard entrance, a floor above the Centre Avenue entrance due to the natural slope of the site.

At the rear of the garden, a granite fountain provides a meditation area, with eight low jets spilling into a pond and masking conversation.

The atrium is bridged near the Centre Avenue entrance on two floors, to accommodate a cafe and informal seating areas that serve both sides of the building.

"We interface a lot with the clinicians," said William Chambers, a Ph.D. tumor immunologist working to develop immunotherapy for brain tumors.

Chambers' new digs is a suite of labs, offices and a commodious kitchen he shares with four other principal investigators -- a total of five lab groups accommodating about 25 people.

"The design of this is to facilitate interaction," Chambers said. "There are fewer physical barriers between investigators. It might sound like a small thing but it eases communication."

For the clinical pavilion, architect John Radelet said his team had three goals -- to pack in as many services as possible under one roof, to maximize patient convenience and to eliminate, as much as possible, the need to move from location to location for diagnosis and treatment.

Clinical director Cheryl Steele and her staff were an important part of the design team, Radelet said.

"Patient flow is really critical," said Steele. "So is accommodating family members, who go with the patient at each stop they're making. They don't just sit in the waiting room."

But when patients and families are in the waiting room, it's designed to provide a far more pleasant experience than in most medical facilities.

"These public spaces are designed to foster a sense of calmness and confidence in their treatment," said architect Janet McCarthy.

Long corridors are broken into a series of rooms warmed by maple casework and paneling and accented with varying light levels and contemporary art (notably Henry Horenstein's "Creatures," a series of mystical, large-format photographic portraits of animals).

The clinic includes exam and treatment facilities, a prevention and early detection exam suite, diagnostic imaging center, counseling areas and a stem cell treatment program.

Because the latter is an all-day procedure for patients, they are housed in family-sized rooms with wood floors, couches, entertainment centers and private bathrooms.

Patient support services include a family library (with a circular video room), pharmacy, conference room/classroom, gift shop and appearance center, where patients are guided in the selection of wigs, prosthetics and makeup.

In these spaces and throughout both pavilions, the architecture shows careful, artful attention to detail. This building of grand gestures is also a place where little things -- as is so often the case in patient care -- make a big difference.

Patricia Lowry can be reached at plowry@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1590.

Correction/Clarification: (Published Oct. 31, 2002) An architectural review of the Hillman Cancer Center in yesterday's paper incorrectly described it as a for-profit facility. The center is nonprofit.

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