Photo © Nick Merrick/Hedrich Blessing

Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago

ZGF Architects, Solomon Cordwell Buenz, Anderson Mikos Architects


High-Rise Healing: The Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital hires three design firms to take pediatric medical care to new heights with a 23-story tower.

By Lee Bey

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Located along a row of utilitarian high-rise buildings on a busy thoroughfare in Chicago's Streeterville neighborhood, one 23-story tower just east of Michigan Avenue stands out: its facade is a lively mix of color, light, and form. Curved glass encloses a ground-level lobby; a sky garden on an upper floor projects beyond the precast-concrete grid that composes the building's facade. Visually, it looks like a set of giant building blocks, piled high by a child—and with good reason.

This is the $605 million Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital, which opened last June on the Northwestern Memorial Hospital campus about a mile northeast of downtown Chicago. At 1.25 million square feet, the building is nearly twice as large as the hospital's former home on a crowded, block-long site in the city's Lincoln Park neighborhood.

The tower is the work of a three-firm architectural team: the Los Angeles office of ZGF Architects, which has an extensive medical-design background; high-rise specialists Solomon Cordwell Buenz of Chicago; and Anderson Mikos Architects, a firm based in Oakbrook Terrace, Illinois, that has worked with the hospital for almost 30 years.

The design team's plan artfully stacks the old hospital's multiplicity of functions on less than 2 acres. It also carries the facade's sense of whimsy indoors, where there are colorful gardens and themed floors—one with a custom Chicago Fire Department truck, complete with insignia, that kids can play in. Given that many of the patients are dealing with life-threatening illnesses or face complicated surgeries, these cheery, well-planned spaces and amenities make the hospital experience less foreboding for children and their families. “They really wanted a facility for families,” explains ZGF principal Sue Ann Barton. “This is important, because these kids can sometimes spend months in the hospital.”

Perhaps the signature example of this approach is the 5,000-square-foot sky garden, designed by Boston landscape architect Mikyoung Kim, on the hospital's 11th floor. The space, a glass box that cantilevers 7½ feet beyond the main structure, features a sinuous landscape with seating and planted trees, a waterfall, and a small cafeteria. The hospital's Kids Advisory Board came up with the idea for the garden.

“The feedback we were getting from the Kids Advisory Board underscored the importance of having a place where patients could feel the sun,” says ZGF principal Stuart Baur. “If they can't leave the hospital, they can, at least for one small period of time, get out of the building.”

The building accommodates 288 inpatient beds, a 45-bed ER, and a suite of operating rooms on the sixth and seventh floors connected by dedicated internal stairs. “They had to be stacked vertically so that they work as one surgery department,” says architect Robert Schaefer of Anderson Mikos.

In addition, dedicated trauma elevators take emergency patients to an ER that's on the second level rather than the ground floor. “So far, it has been going very, very well,” Barton says of the elevator setup. “It allowed us to bring the patient from the ambulance to the trauma core of the ER. In the old hospital, you'd have to take them down the hall. It's faster than it used to be.”

Even the lobby is essentially split between two floors. The airy main floor has a maritime theme, with a boat-shaped café and a life-size replica of mother and calf whales hanging from the ceiling; the second floor acts as a main street, with a reception desk and connection to the neighboring Prentice Women's Hospital and a parking garage. “This is like a city,” says Martin Wolf, a design principal at Solomon Cordwell Buenz whose vision helped shape the project.

Despite the building's size and complexity, the architects' thoughtful organization and playful geometry are sure to help take the sting out of hospital stays.

Lee Bey discusses and writes about architecture for Chicago publicradio station WBEZ-FM.

Size: 1.25 million square feet

Completion date: June 2012

Total construction cost: $605 million

ZGF Architects LLP
515 S. Flower Street, Suite 3700
Los Angeles, California 90071
P: 213-617-1901
F: 213-617-0047

March 2013
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