Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center is one of the top rated facilities of its kind, and according to different polls currently ranks third in the nation. It’s research programs attract top talent and as a consequence it has experienced explosive growth in the last decade. The chaotic agglomeration and constricted footprint of its base campus has forced it to look at the surrounding neighborhood for expansion opportunities. These plans materialized after aggregating several acres of blighted urban properties in the vicinity. Our office was hired to design a 140, 000 sq.ft. (13 000 sq.m.) medical office building and a 1450 car parking garage a block north of their existing base. Children’s also commited to occupy tho thirds of an office building nested to the two, developed by the Uptown Consortium and design-built by Al Neyer Inc. The three buildings form the North Burnet campus of CCHMC.
The challenge was manifold: to transition the institutional scale of Burnet Avenue, south of Erkenbrecker, defined by massive office buildings, hospitals, and parking structures to the residential scale of the neighborhood to the north and east. Most of the homes in Avondale were built a hundred or more years ago, contributing to an urban fabric impossible to ignore, rich with eclectic, German and Italianate references. The neighborhood has suffered for a long time from blight and neglect. We knew we would not throw at it another mis-scaled historically influenced facsimile. We sought a modern approach which would still communicate with the values and spatial qualities of this part of town, which had shaped itself as a predominantly African American neighborhood.
The relationship between original African motifs as those present in traditional basketry, hair arrangements and woven products and their absorption and reinterpretation within the American culture intrigued us. The winning metaphor materialized as a braid, or basket weave, a geometrical interlocking of materials and assemblies. In further development, challenged to avoid immitation, it evolved into a creative symbiosis, similar to the one that culminated in jazz, for instance, born when the roots of traditional African music crossed with the American experience. We looked at the vibrant colors of Africa, but saw them within the context of a quaint Midwestern neighborhood shaped by multiple cultures. The braid metaphor transcended its physical reference to give us the approach to dealing with scale, articulation and detail.
Parking garages and their deep, disorienting, poorly accessed by natural light spaces shaped by the monotonous regularity of a barebones structural pattern are in most cases a depressing environment. Our design for the parking structure reacted to these factors in two ways. The necessary concrete crash barriers often cost effectively double as fall protection at 3′-6″ (1.07 m) height which reduces the perimeter openings. To maximize the natural light penetration, those were brought down to the 2′ code required minimum. We designed a screening system which subverts the orthogonal, engineering driven structural pattern and interrupts the depressing monotony that the building type conveys. The weave pattern emerges as undulating ribbons of stainless steel mesh which run horizontally and vertically with a 3′ deep amplitude, intersecting at each crossing. In a move aiming to further erode regularity, the weave pattern, prevalent over the main, north facade of the garage, transitions to flat scrim along the other 3 facades. The diaphanous material changes its opacity depending on the viewing angle, and alternatively shimmers or fades to dull gray depending on the light conditions.
These bold, yet economical gestures conveyed by the stainless steel cladding are the main design feature of the parking garage. The three access towers are extensively glazed in support of the building’s main thesis: openness, light, security. A geometric pattern executed in aluminum composite material engages the different levels and acts as a transition device between the floor metrics of the parking structure and the incongruent floor-to-floor spans of the adjacent medical office building.
With its setback from the neighborhood “Main Street”, Burnet Ave, and its main entrances off of a side street, from an urban standpoint the garage assumes a background role. The MOB, on the other hand is on the property line and with its 6 floors and 110′ height, a major presence. Its design was driven by another manifestation of the braid metaphor, one we discovered in the interlocking of two bodies anthitetical in materiality and surface articulation. A vertically oriented part to the north, clad in rich tropical hardwood veneered phenolic resin panes contrasts with a horizontally layered southern portion of alternating green tinted ribbon windows and corrugated aluminum layers. The two interlock and are separated by a massive void, where a whiplashing curtain wall encloses a stair corseting the two all the way to the top; waves around a 22′ tall first floor and wraps tightly under an overhang at the southern end to carve out a covered playground area. The curtainwall is a mosaic on a large scale, with an irregular pattern of transparent and acid etched glass and anodized aluminum, forming the third element in the composition, and echoing the building program and mission: healing children. The use of architectural laminates has increased exponentially in the last decade by moving to the exterior, and there are a lot to choose from. There are few materials, however, that match the striking visual qualities of PRODEMA, one of the few manifacturers that uses actual tropical wood (okume) veneer in the production of their PVDF coated panels. The wood grain is very visible under the rich bordeaux red overal tones, with each panel unique in color and pattern. The two contrasting materials project a contemporary image, yet the natural feel of the wood relates well to the brick and exposed timbers of the Bavarian-inspired buildings in the neighborhood.
Hospitals are frequently conservative, corporate looking places with grand spaces and intimidating detail. The Children’s staff insisted that we pay attention to the fact the buildings would serve children, with all the beauty and responsibility of this fact. The tall first floor became our sandbox, which broke up the regularity of the volumes and scaled the building down to the pedestrian level. In addition to the irregular curtain wall mosaic, we designed an ornamental canopy overhanging the covered playground. Positioned at the south western corner of the building, it arrays aluminum fins swinging around the corner in a freeform shape, a little whimsy in the serious composition, providing an in-between, semi shade over the playground in the summer.
For the exterior envelope of the building we devised a system of insulated metal panels, frequently seen in light industrial and warehouse construction. Manufactured by Centria, it provided a superior thermal insulation, eliminating the downsides of the simpler and cheaper built-up stud wall structures, something of particular value in clinical institutions. The cladding was installed as rainscreen, with a ventilated cavity behind.
The building houses several departments of CCHMC, including the Division of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, Audiology, The Thomas Center, and different administrative offices. It opened at the end of November, 2009.
(This project was done with DNK Architects, the architectural design office where I currently practice. I worked in various capacities on the three projects making up the CCHMC North Burnet campus switching the hats of Lead Designer and Project Architect when needed. With the projects exceeding $ 70 million in construction cost, they were naturally produced by a large team of professionals in several disciplines. I led the design, materials research and selection, and detailing of the core and shell of the 3340 Burnet MOB and The Herald building, and designed and detailed the cladding and curtain walls of the parking garage).
Design team (DNK Architects):
David Kirk, AIA – Principal in charge
Ralph Wolfe, AIA – Project manager
Raffi Tomassian – Lead designer/Project architect
Aaron Spetz – Project architect
Craig Hinrichs, AIA – architect
Adwoa Dufour – Arch Intern
Matt Latham – Lanscape Architect
THP – Structural engineers
Dynamix – MEP Engineers