Viewpoint (March 01, 2002)

Like many architects, I’ve visited a wide variety of buildings, studied drawings and photographs of many more, and made my share of pilgrimages to iconic buildings and sites. Even on very brief visits, an attentive eye can quickly assess a project’s formal, tectonic and material virtues, and architects typically claim a large repertoire of these experiences. By comparison, the buildings we experience as users rather than educated visitors are precious few, and a large gulf can exist between these two perspectives.

When the new wing designed by Zeidler Roberts Partnership/Architects (now Zeidler Grinnell) for Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children opened in 1993, my response to the project was similar to the one articulated in this magazine (see CA April 1993). The atrium scheme clearly succeeded at the level of building organization, orientation, circulation and sensitivity to patient needs, but its expression and detailing bore a striking resemblance to that much-maligned building type, the shopping mall. The fact that the same firm had also designed the nearby Eaton Centre made the association even more inescapable.

My initial impressions of the project had been formed on the basis of a few brief visits. Three years later, I experienced the building from a different perspective. Complications at birth required that our daughter spend the first few days of her life at Sick Kids’. By the time she was released with a clean bill of health, we had spent three days in the hospital, and my relationship to the building transformed from that of a detached observer to a full-fledged user.

Typically, we encounter the architecture of health care at times of great vulnerability and emotional stress. In such circumstances, it seems, conscious awareness of our environment fades to the background, even for those of us normally attuned to the details of the architecture that surrounds us. From the point of view of parents consumed with worry over their child’s health, the question of whether the hospital’s detailing resembled that of a mall faded into obscurity. On another level, however, the architecture of Sick Kids’ yielded important benefits. Although stuck in a hospital room for three days, we were only a few steps away from the generous spaces and natural daylight in the atrium, which did much to alleviate the claustrophobia associated with confinement. The building’s detail vocabulary may have receded from awareness, but its larger architectural strategies of spatial organization, provision of daylight and ease of orientation had a significant impact on our experience.

None of this is to suggest that expression and detail aren’t important. They are fundamental to a building’s contribution to architectural culture and constitute an important component of the discourse; as such they must be part of any serious critique, and in this context Sick Kids’ resemblance to a mall remains problematic. However, it’s worth keeping in mind that from a user’s perspective, spatial relationships, scale, proportion and access to daylight may play a more important role in the development of successful, user-responsive architecture. Marco Polo