High performance and cultural relevance meet in concrete, metal, and steel mesh envelope.
For the stakeholders involved in building the new Rev. Avery C. Alexander Academic Research Hospital (also known as University Medical Center, or UMC) in downtown New Orleans, the project was about much more than replacing facilities damaged during Hurricane Katrina.
“The grander story is the effort to rebuild New Orleans,” recalled NBBJ principal Jose Sama. “There was a lot of emotional attachment to the original hospital, Charity Hospital, and also—rightly so—the pride the community has for the character of the city. Everyone wanted to make sure the project was going to be something that was of New Orleans.” In a joint venture with Blitch Knevel Architects, NBBJ rose to the challenge with a design that subtly reflects the city’s cultural heritage. The building envelope, a combination of precast concrete, metal panels, high performance glazing, and stainless steel mesh, contributed significantly to both the project’s aesthetic aspirations and its performance goals.
The overarching concept for UMC, explained Sama, was to “create a performance in place.” For the architects, “performance” holds a double meaning. “Performance is embedded in [New Orleans] culture, but this is a more high-level sense of performance,” said Sama. “Place,” in turn, draws on the city’s climate and character. “We looked at various clues in the urban environment and how those could affect the design,” said Sama, recalling visits to the hospital’s Canal Street neighborhood and the French Quarter. Then, of course, there are the environmental threats made all too clear by the Katrina experience. “We completed [the design] with the understanding that we had to create an envelope that could withstand hurricane-force winds and missile impact,” said Sama. “That was an important piece of selecting the glass and the curtain wall system.”
In fact, most of the damage sustained by Charity Hospital was the result of flooding rather than high winds. As a result, the architects faced a mandate to elevate all critical hospital functions above 22 feet. “We envisioned this as a floating hospital,” said Sama. “The notion was that the more public zones, the softer spaces like dining, registration, and the lobbies, would occur at the ground level. Then you move up to an elevated plane of critical services. That way they could function regardless of flooding.” The building envelope reflects this programmatic move: The first floor of the central campus structure—the diagnostic and treatment center—is wrapped in a transparent curtain wall with a strong emphasis on the horizontal while the upper, critical floors feature a precast concrete facade. The two other project components, the medical office building and the inpatient towers, offer variations on the theme. The former is clad in an insulated metal panel system, the latter in precast concrete, glass, and stainless steel mesh.
A number of subtle gestures connect the hospital exterior to New Orleans’ history and culture. One thing Sama noticed on his site visits was that “the notion of the garden is important, and the notion of getting outdoors.” With that in mind, the architects created a central entry pavilion “designed such that you have a very pronounced sense of entry created by a porch, or a projecting eave—it almost has the effect of a trellis,” said Sama. They also created informal gardens wherever possible. The signature garden, nestled between the towers and the diagnostic center, is water-based, and imagines the seating areas as lily pads floating on a pond. “The idea that here in the middle of New Orleans you find a water-intensive garden was really critical,” said Sama.
The patient towers, too, embody a strong connection to the outdoors via balconies for patients and staff. Metal scrims in Cambridge Architectural‘s Mid-Balance architectural mesh simultaneously provide aesthetic interest and fall protection. “We studied what we could do with the scrim,” said Sama. “We think we picked just the right scale. It’s appropriate for someone sitting on the balcony, but also for someone walking by.” The mesh panels produce a “soft veil effect,” he observed. “In the morning light, it glistens. The intent was to create a memory of Mardi Gras beads, in terms of color and glistening. People will pick up on that different times of day.”
Cambridge Architectural contributed to several other elements of the project. Mesh fins in the Scale pattern are attached with a custom cable tensioning system to the upper levels of the patient towers, to provide solar shading. On the parking garage portion, designed by Blitz Knevel Architects, 86 panels of Scale mesh again add both visual impact and fall protection without compromising ventilation. On the south elevation of the garage leading to the UMC helipad, a custom-built shade mesh fin system cuts solar gain and glare.
Many of the references embedded in the new UMC hospital—the way in which the towers’ orientations recall traditional New Orleans shotgun houses, or the connection between the stainless steel mesh and Mardi Gras beads—are so understated as to operate on almost a subliminal level. But like the city itself, the building comes alive at night, finally, and literally, revealing its true colors. “The building from the outside is very neutral,” explained Sama. But thanks to accent colors on the inpatient tower stairs, revealed through translucent glass, plus accent lighting on the bulkheads above, after dark the towers shine, he explained. “The whole point was that at night they would glow with color from within.”