Recently I finished reading a book called Architecture of the Absurd (Quantuck Lane Press, New York) by a hard-bitten former university president, John Silber of Boston University, who oversaw the building of nearly 14 million square feet of varied structures for his institution during his 25-year tenure. Himself the son of an architect (and on honorary member of the AIA), Silber takes on some of architecture’s most iconic stars for what he deems to be their ventures into the absurd.

I. M. Pei (John Hancock Tower), Le Corbusier (Algiers urban plan), Daniel Libeskind (Jewish Museum-Berlin, World Trade Center replacement tower, Denver Art Museum), Frank Gehry (Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts—Bard College, Stata Center—MIT)—all take it on the architectural chin. Their principal sin: designing without taking into account their clients’ basic need for a workable building. The swoops, the flash, the odd, cramping shapes, and illogical plans—they might make for interesting sculpture, says Silber, but as architecture they’re failures.

I must confess, reading this prompted me to leaf through our gigantic September Architectural Showcase issue to see if I could find candidates for Silber’s cudgels. I’m pleased to report finding no apparent targets, at least in these eyes—no whimsical sculpture or transcendent vision for its own sake. I wondered why, especially considering that the publishing of nearly 180 projects allows considerable opportunity for this. My instant analysis: Designers in healthcare are bound by the unusual, in some cases life-or-death, functional demands of this field.

Accommodations they must provide go far beyond those offered by the traditional office building, theater, shopping center, or private home. Healthcare institutions must combine high-tech and high-touch processes effectively and efficiently to enhance human well-being and survival. This is serious business, to say the least, leaving not much room for kidding around.

On the other hand it’s heartening to see that the spare functionalism healthcare design used to inspire no longer rules. Many of the facilities featured in our Architectural Showcase exhibited highly creative and pleasing uses of form, including: (1) several distinctive, individualistic building exteriors, employing various shapes and materials; (2) ingenious and effective approaches to introducing natural light throughout the hospital—a tribute to recent innovations in structural engineering and building materials; (3) imaginative ceiling designs incorporating intriguing swoops, scallops, light wells, skyscapes, and plays of clerestory lighting.

I’m eagerly waiting to see how much farther healthcare designers will take architectural creativity in these essentially utilitarian—and highly expensive—structures. A hint of the possibilities comes from today’s exciting, playfully designed children’s hospitals. Healthcare design for adults—especially ill adults and their families—appears to require more caution and restraint.

But still, don’t you think we have a way to go between this and absurdity? HD


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