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04.30.2010
Fountain of Health
New plaza to provide respite for patients and improve urban conditions in St. Louis
The plaza creates a new oasis for the St. Louis campus, while linking to the adjacent commercial and residential district.
Courtesy Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates

A 75,000-square-foot plaza designed by Maya Lin Studio with Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates will soon adorn the BJC HealthCare and Washington University Medical School campus, providing a positive environment for patient care as well as a new focal point for the St. Louis campus. The plaza will feature a concrete-and-limestone infinity pool with water lilies and fiber optic lighting, along with a dense landscape of native plants, serpentine paths, and outdoor seating areas.

Built in conjunction with a new 11-story laboratory designed by Cannon Design, and framed by a halo of elevated walkways connecting various medical buildings, the plaza will provide a newly lush center to a campus that was until recently dominated by full-block buildings and a network of streets and concrete.

The design team chose to “complement the highly architectural, orthogonal context created by the surrounding buildings with gently undulating topography, curvilinear forms, and a rich palette of plant material,” Andrew Gutterman, senior associate at Van Valkenburgh Associates, said via email.


The relaxed, curvilinear design has been carved out of what was previously a hard-edged environment.

The design was “motivated significantly by performative evaluation of how the landscape will be used and the kinds of things that patients at the hospital would need,” added Michael Van Valkenburgh. “We also wanted a kind of relaxed informality that contrasts with the more clinical, by necessity, interiors of the hospital and research facilities, hence the embracing curves, the smaller, more protective apses for sitting, and the moveable furniture.”

Seasonal and microclimatic conditions at the site inform the planting strategies. Trees including willows, swamp white oaks, and redbuds were chosen for both their suitability to urban sites and for their distinct leaves and flowers, which will help animate the plaza year-round.


The space is intended to serve as a respite for the medical campus, with protected areas and an embracing planting scheme.

The plaza will not only be a resource for the hospital and university community, but is designed to act as a hub for the adjacent residential neighborhood and commercial corridor, as well as to support the nearby light-rail station.

“We anticipate that the plaza will become both a new center of social life for the medical campus in which it is located, as well as a crossroads between the campus and the surrounding neighborhood,” Gutterman said. “The design of the plaza allows for direct, efficient pedestrian passage and also creates a space out of the way for people to be able to slow down and relax. Such outdoor spaces tend to be rare in places where medical uses are concentrated, though it is in such environments where they are of their greatest value.”


The water feature's cosmological significance will be announced at the plaza's inauguration in June.

“We’re changing the whole campus with this,” said Steven Sobo, director of design and construction at the Medical School. Sobo said the intent of the project is to bring “the deep woods experience into an urban environment,” and to provide an area where “you can stop and take a minute. Or, in medical terms, it’s an area of respite.”

Sobo added that the fiber-optic lighting embedded in the water feature represents “a period in time of the night sky,” but said that the specifics of the cosmological composition wouldn’t be revealed until the grand opening of the plaza in mid-June.

Brian Newman