Sparkle of Glass, Sense of Place

Designing Beauty at Methodist
by Jonathan Wright

The integration of local artwork into the hospital’s expansion project has created a healing environment and destination for art lovers.

From the dawn of time, art has partnered with architecture in a symbiotic relationship of mutual benefit. Prehistoric man painted on the walls of caves to mark those spaces as significant. Artists and craftsmen built the great pyramids of Egypt, decorating the pillars of these elaborate tombs and filling them with objects of art that reflected every aspect of their lives. The classical architecture of ancient Greece was itself art, with little distinction between the two.

But modern architecture turned away from lavish ornamentation to concentrate on simplicity and function. In this context, art was a secondary consideration, typically disparaged as “plunk art”—often-mediocre works “plunked down” to fill the gaps of an empty plaza or building. In recent years, however, as people have grown more sophisticated in their expectations of building design, art has begun to reclaim an integrated role in the built environment.

A Healing Space
Healthcare facilities, in particular, have a strong interest in the design of their physical spaces, with the objective of creating a “healing environment.” This can be clearly seen in the new Hamilton Boulevard entryway and lobby at Methodist Medical Center, which opened in April.

As the visitor’s introduction to the campus, the entryway and lobby area set the overall tone, and they first must be functional. The new entrance offers easier access to the medical center and improves the flow of traffic. Patients can now use self-service kiosks to confirm appointments, scan insurance and ID cards, and make co-pays, speeding up the check-in and check-out process.

“But a healing environment is about more than just technology,” notes Rebekah Bourland, vice president of the Methodist Medical Center Foundation, who served on the planning team that was involved in the early design discussions nearly two years ago. “We wanted people to walk in the door and feel better—that they were in a positive space with a lot of light and pleasant colors and things of beauty to look at.”

This brings us to the aesthetics of entryways, which are charged with creating that welcoming atmosphere. This is perhaps most critical in healthcare facilities, where visitors are dealing with illness, stress, and matters of life and death; not surprisingly, the stereotype of the hospital setting is one of gloom and sterility. But as recent studies have shown, the aesthetic qualities of healthcare facilities can make a world of difference when it comes to creating a healing environment. With that in mind, Methodist decision makers made it a point to incorporate local artwork into the design from the beginning.

Aesthetic Reflections
“The importance of art in a healing environment is now an accepted practice,” declares Debbie Cerra of Kahler Slater, the architecture/design firm that worked on the entryway project. According to Cerra, a growing body of research shows that the effects of design on patient outcomes—physical and emotional health, well-being, mood and safety—can be measured, an emerging concept known as evidence-based design.

“For example, it’s been proven that patients who view appropriate art require less pain medication and experience shortened hospital stays,” Cerra continues. “So the perception of their environment has a direct link to their overall health. We see art as an aesthetic reflection of Methodist and their vision.”

The outcome of this vision was an array of locally produced artwork integrated into spaces designed specifically for that purpose. At the center of the project is a 40-foot-long glass sculpture that greets visitors as they enter the building. The sprawling work by glass artist Hiram Toraason is composed of several hundred pieces of hand-blown glass mounted to the wall in four panels more than a dozen feet off the ground. It binds the entryway to the region with an abstract depiction of the Illinois River, its amber and cranberry-red sunset gliding across blue waters and a thin green seam that represents the river valley horizon.

“Rivers are a symbol of life and health, while the sun represents warmth and light,” notes Cerra. “We wanted an art piece that was a reflection of the local environment. A river is ever-changing, so the glass ‘moves,’ similar to the Illinois River. Glass is a perfect medium to represent water, due to its transparent and reflective qualities.”

“This area has built itself off the river,” adds Toraason, explaining some of his thoughts behind the concept. “[The sculpture] is supposed to almost pour off the wall, in a way.”

River of Glass
Throughout the process, Toraason was as contemplative as the impact he hopes the piece will have on its viewers. Placing himself in the shoes of a visitor, he thought long and hard about how the piece will affect patients and their families, and how it could contribute to this healing environment. From the organic shapes of the individual pieces of glass—which he refers to as “pods”—to his consideration of color and how the glass will play with the natural light at different times of day, it’s clear that he spent a lot of time conceptualizing the project.

“This is permanent—as long as this room is here, this glass will be here,” said Toraason, proud of his first large-scale installation. “It’s a three-dimensional sculpture in a two-dimensional space. I wanted to do something unique—not just hang something flat on the wall. I wanted to make an impact.”

Certainly, this is no “plunk art.” Because the sculpture was so integral to the design, it required a great deal of coordination and a working partnership among all the parties, from planning to engineering to installation. Over the nearly two-year-long process, Toraason attended countless meetings and conference calls, working with everyone from the CEO to the designer to the electrician to the carpenter.

“There were thousands of steps,” explained Toraason. “You had to take so many different things into consideration. There’s quite a bit of weight on the wall, so the architect had to design the walls to sustain that weight. So I’m into blueprints…and talking with architects and lighting designers. How am I going to actually install this? How is somebody going to clean it? How do you change the light bulbs?”

The massive piece required a large amount of space to assemble its many components—space that Toraason was able to find at the Murray Building in downtown Peoria, where many of his fellow artists have studios. “That gave me the ability to use the three-dimensional pieces of glass as a kind of canvas or palette,” he said. “I had all these different colors and shapes and sizes, and you had to kind of lay it out and figure…I’m going to need at least 80 blue ones, and I need 40 of the purple, and then 30 of these…and you start putting the puzzle together.”

Nature’s Creative Expressions
“I started with my first 35mm camera in high school, where I worked on the school newspaper,” says Tina Gauwitz of Nature’s Creative Expressions (NCE) Photography. “I went on to build a darkroom in our basement where I played with black-and-white film. Then I began my career in radiology, which left me little time for my passion of photography. I guess you could say being a radiological technologist is a form of photography. 

“Being a 26-year employee, this project meant a lot to me,” she added. “I am proud to work at Methodist and am thrilled to be able to showcase my work here. I worked on this project over the summer months in 2009, keeping in mind the color schemes and Illinois-native wildflowers. 

“For me, photographing nature is a wonderful and fulfilling experience. I am excited about being able to share my passion of nature and photography with others.”

Visit ncephoto.com to take a stroll through Gauwitz’s photo galleries.

Floral Discoveries
In addition to the glass sculpture that anchors the project, local artwork was incorporated into nearly every aspect of the new development. Most prominently, the 45-foot-long donor recognition wall features ornate, hand-blown glass flowers, also by Toraason, encased within lighted glass columns. The artwork is meant to “slow people’s walk,” he says.

Between the columns, glass plaques project from the wall, honoring the generosity of donors, while the coordinated nature photography of long-time Methodist employee Tina Gauwitz splashes warmth and color onto the scene.

Gauwitz’ photographs were chosen specifically for their organic healing properties. “[Kahler Slater] had spoken about using impressionistic nature work for the main lobby area,” recalled Bourland, “and I was aware that one of our employees was a very talented nature photographer. I suggested that they take a look at her work, and they loved it!”

“Her images are abstracted florals, celebrating movement, color and depth,” noted Cerra. “[They] evoke a sense of mystery and allow the viewer to feel a sense of discovery each time they are seen—also serving as a connection to the community and providing a sense of safety and familiarity.”

Gauwitz’ vibrant images—more than 15 of them—hang throughout the new lobby area. Mounted on acrylic glass of various sizes, they showcase flora native to Illinois—purple allium, blue bells, yellow and orange coneflower, spiderwort, milkweed and columbine. “I believe looking at beautiful flowers and nature pictures helps to relax people and maybe takes their minds off their daily challenges for a brief moment,” says Gauwitz.

The artwork of Don Kettleborough, Tom Gross, Greg DePauw and Michael McKee are also featured in the new space.

A Gift That Keeps Giving
The incorporation of art into the design of a structure or space enhances the integrity and meaning of both the artwork itself and the environment in which it is integrated. It engages the audience emotionally. It creates a unique sense of place. And it’s a gift that keeps giving, long after the line items in the budget have been forgotten.

Rebekah Bourland believes that the incorporation of local artwork into this project has created not just a healing environment, but a destination for art lovers, likening it to Preston Jackson’s Underground Railroad sculpture that climbs the wall of the Civic Center several blocks away.

“We should be honoring our artists by making them a permanent part of our community in the buildings and in the public art that we support,” said Bourland. “I’m enormously proud that the hospital took this route. I wish that more big projects would approach it with this thought in mind—that there is a lot of extraordinary talent in this community, and we really ought to mark our buildings with that talent, because it speaks a lot about our community.” a&s


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