New Shriners Hospital in St. Louis City Closer to Reality, Project Team Shares Images, Thoughts on Project

{looking northwest across I-64 at the new Shriners Hospital}

The long-delayed Shriners Hospital move from Frontenac to St. Louis City and the Barnes-Jewish/Washington University Medical Campus appears to be nearing reality. A short mention on the Post-Dispatch website reports that construction should begin later this year. That, in itself isn't big news, but the architect for the project, Gresham, Smith and Partners (GSP) has some interesting information on their site.
The first public mention of a possible move was on Mayor Slay's blog in May 2006. Since then the endowment that the Shriners organization relies on to operate and build new hospitals decreased from almost $8B to $5B. An official groundbreaking was held and then in January 2009 the project was officially put on hold. Now it appears that all architectural and construction documents have been completed and construction may begin soon. The hospital will be located on the south side of Clayton Avenue, north of I-64, east of Taylor Avenue and west of Newstead Avenue. Excerpts from a project team interview posted on the GSP website, renderings and a few more thoughts are below.

{looking southeast across Clayton Avenue}

While Shriners considered a number of sites around the St. Louis area, they ultimately chose the Medical Campus site because of its proximity to Barnes-Jewish Hospital, Children's Hospital and Washington University Medical School. Physicians at Shriners donate their time and talent so being physically close to those doctors was ultimately decisive. The level project site was ideal in some respects, but the team had to deal with seismic zone issues and other challenges. In the end, Shriners committed to making the site work.

Q: What was the give-and-take on trying to be innovative while working with a group that’s been operating hospitals around the nation for some time?

(Project architect) Alba (Lopez-Isa): They are definitely not the typical client, and don’t want cookie-cutter hospitals. Instead, they want to establish an individual image for each campus, so every one of their facilities is very different. The goal was to provide a very visible project for a very prestigious medical campus near Washington University in St. Louis. And, since part of the building faces I-64, they wanted to establish a highly visible presence in the city.

Q: Why was the interaction with that campus so important to them?
(Senior Project Manager) David (Goodspeed): They want to contribute to the the area rather than just fit in. They want to be outspoken and unique, but they also want to take advantage of the interaction and uniqueness of the university setting and the innovative medical opportunities there.

It's great to hear that Shriners was well aware of the opportunity and challenge presented by the highly visible site. From the renderings available I at first didn't think that they really succeeded in leveraging this great visibility. But regarding the view from the Interstate, a look at the highway itself shows that the main hospital building will be very visible indeed. From either direction, I-64 points towards the site and drivers will be looking more at the main hospital building than the garage that will sit closer to the highway. The several blocks nearest the site are depressed lanes and not the best for visibility. And of course it's great that this area will not see another parking garage fronting a city street.

{blue and red shapes are approximate locations of the hospital and parking garage respectively}

Q: What effect did moving the facility from a suburban location to an urban setting have on the design? Were there any particular challenges?

(Project Coordinator) Angela (Holcomb): A challenge for the staff was getting them to think vertically instead of spread out, which is what they were used to.

Alba: They were also used to a very high-end residential neighborhood, so it was definitely a challenge getting them used to one side of the facility facing a highway and the other facing an urban neighborhood. They were initially concerned about the changes, but they were looking forward to the new building, the new technology, and the therapy areas for the kids.

While many urban-minded people would think that vertical building and density should be required to build in the city, and especially this location, it's interesting to hear the project team comment on the challenge of addressing a client on this issue. It's an education process and few organizations and companies, and even some construction firms have had little experience with urban building sites in the past couple decades. On this, I'd say the design is somewhat successful. They did build "up", but the north facade facing Clayton Avenue appears incredibly uninviting and not part of anything I would call an "urban neighborhood." Perhaps the team was successful in improving upon the clients initial thoughts.

{looking directly south}

Q: Shriners wanted the building to be unique with a distinct image. What were some of the design aspects of the exterior?

(Project Coordinator) Christopher (Davis): They definitely wanted an iconic building. One of Jim’s concepts was a fin at the top of the building. The concept was that as you’re coming down the highway, the sun angle would actually shine through that building onto the passersby and project an image into the visitors’ area. We chose very long-lasting materials, thickened with pre-cast to help match all the other buildings in the area. We also kept everything regional, from a sustainability and energy point of view.

Alba: A Washington University agency, Cortex, is in charge of making sure certain aesthetic requirements are met. They were very concerned about the look of the building, the materials, plans, exterior lighting, signage, and vehicular and pedestrian circulation.

Angela: Sticking with the language of the neighborhood by using some of the same materials and colors helped out a lot.

Alba: We also met with the city of St. Louis, and they gave us great guidance on what we could do to keep the graphics and revise the signs. It was certainly a different process than what we are used to.

(Architect) Bruce Pitre: And because the art is proposed to mount on the garage, and the garage faces the interstate, the artistic image has potential to be the main visual impact of the facility and the site. It is such a presence on the interstate and an important part of the design. Jim was aiming for a number of different ways to do this, and in the end, they’re very happy with it.

The relocation of Shriners to St. Louis City is a big deal. It's a small hospital, but it does bring jobs to the city, and adds another component to a growing world-class medical complex. I'm not overly optimistic that the new hospital will have a substantial impact on Forest Park Southeast, across I-64, but any development will help. And while the thought of seeing an enormous floating head of a smiling child on the side of the parking garage isn't so appealing, perhaps the long-proposed apartment development at Chouteau and Taylor will be the next to break ground and another parking garage can face the one at Shriners.

Any final verdict on design will have to wait. The team certainly had a challenge on its hands, an "iconic building" that met "certain aesthetic requirements" of CORTEX using "the same materials and colors" of the neighborhood (meaning the other BJC/WU medical buildings). I will say that I basically like the CORTEX building fronting Forest Park Avenue and Solae's building is interesting, even if the site placement is not, but why do we want a homogeneous superblock CORTEX/Medical Campus. This area is literally huge and innovation in design and architecture is sorely needed. The area is large enough to have multiple campuses with different identities. Let's welcome the new Shriners Hospital and hope that future projects are more daring and live up to any aspiration to be "iconic".

{looking northwest across I-64}