Flight of Fancy
Children entering the lobby at the historic Children’s Hospital Boston have a visual treat in store. They see an 18-foot-wide, 8-foot-high wall of carved glass depicting a child with upraised arms at one end and "wind" lines swooping across six panels. As they walk along, a butterfly-shaped kite materializes over the engraved child’s head in glowing blue lights and sweeps along with the wind to the far end of the display. As they approach the display for closer inspection, a small niche panel at eye level suddenly comes to life: a blue butterfly emerges from its chrysalis and turns orange as it spreads its wings.
This light show doesn’t only serve as a treat for children (and impressed adults). Seemingly embedded in the glass panels are the names of hundreds of donors to the hospital; many of the names magically change out every year. The piece is, in fact, a donor wall, with something special added for the children and families who are the reasons for the enterprise. And it is the latest in the evolving donor wall work of Christina Amri and her Amri Studio.
Amri is known for her meticulously crafted sculptural glass donor walls located in hospitals throughout the United States (see "Expressing Gratitude in Glass," HEALTHCARE DESIGN November 2003, and "Welcome to Our History," HEALTHCARE DESIGN May 2006). They feature scenes, portraits, and donor names etched and deep-carved into half-inch sculptural white glass illuminated by edge-lighting LED bulbs embedded strategically along the borders of the display. They are visually dramatic, but a couple of years ago, Amri took her art to a new level by integrating computer animation, adding dynamism to the donor wall display. The first such project was located at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio. Now the Boston Children’s project takes the dynamism one step further to the computer-interactive realm.
"As soon as we saw that wonderful Columbus project, we knew we wanted something as appealing," says Janet Cady, president, Children’s Hospital Trust (the philanthropic arm of Boston Children’s). "We wanted a display that would appeal to many audiences—the children, the parents, our clinicians, the research scientists who work at the hospital, and the donors who have helped make all this possible." The result is not only a pleasing and stimulating light show for kids and other passersby, but it is a spectacular acknowledgment of generous givers.
Just as spectacular, from an engineering standpoint, is the mechanical arrangement that allows the donor list to be refreshed every year, changing out up to 1,000 names per year. Each of the highly polished acrylic panels swings open on custom-designed steel pivots to allow removal of a donor list and insertion of an updated digital screen print of new names. Design of the steel pins was initiated by a retired machinist, Fred Oberti, who, according to Amri, was so dedicated to the project that on his deathbed, he gave completion instructions to a friend who finished the work. "This functionality was a big deal for us," Cady says. "Being able to move names of donors in and out of the donor wall is not difficult and was an integral benefit of the project."
Along with mechanical inventiveness, the project reflects a unique combination of sculptural glass carving, computer programming, and lighting engineering. For the images, the clear crystal was deep-etched several points per inch and deep-carved for key portions of the image. This is a highly demanding art form, to say the least, with the risk of disaster ever-present. ("We just ruined a piece this morning," Amri confessed the day of the interview. "There was an invisible flaw in the stencil and when we carved it, peeled it, and washed it, the flaw became immediately apparent.")
Within the display, the detail work was intense: "Designer Caroline Pugh on our staff created a textured butterfly that looks almost as though you could pull it off the glass," Amri says. "And there are surprising details within the images." For example, a DNA double-helix is carved within the kite tails, a star constellation is "reflected" in a dragonfly’s eye, and DNA patterns are entwined with the sculpted child’s drawing of the sun. Meanwhile the "wind" swoops were patterned after actual wind velocity charts for the Boston area—all of this a nod to the scientific seriousness of the hospital’s research.
Enter creative lighting engineer Tim Feldman of Electric Algorithms. He crafted the computer programming that enables the butterfly kite to fly across all six panels and the blue butterfly to emerge from its chrysalis and turn orange when the panel’s computerized sensors pick up on a child’s approach.
Feldman’s art was put to an immediate, if unofficial, test the day of the project’s opening, when Danielle Stephenson, the trust’s director of donor relations who oversaw the project for Boston Children’s, saw her young daughter run up to the child-level glass panel, slap it enthusiastically with one hand, and become suddenly transfixed by the emerging butterfly. "It was a functional test and a safety test all in one," Amri quips.
Interestingly, a project of such scope and complexity was installed with relatively little difficulty. "We took great pains," Cady explains, "to involve our facilities people from the start in questions of materials and installation so that there would be no surprises when the time came to install the work." The design process went through no fewer than 13 iterations. "We worked hard to get it just right for all our audiences, and Christina was great in her comprehension of our needs and the way she challenged our thought processes. She brought wonderful passion to this project from her years of experience," Cady says.
It was clearly a project with serious purpose. Margot Forrest, public relations director and writer/editor for Amri’s staff, offered an etched quote from the piece: "We dwell in possibility, a place where once impossible discoveries and innovations are becoming world-changing realities. Thank you." Designer Caroline Pugh cites another quote in which the hospital describes the parties for whom the project was intended: "Families inspiring us with their trust and courage. Scientists boldly pursuing cures. Donors making innovation and exploration possible, unlocking our ability to soar to new heights. Caregivers seeking better ways to treat the children who come through our doors." Both quotes were composed by Nicole Palovich, trust director of development marketing.
Summing it all up is Boston Children’s motto describing its mission: The hospital is, "The place of YES." HCD
For more information on Amri Studio, please visit www.amristudio.com. For more information on Children’s Hospital Boston, please visit www.childrenshospital.org.