The Melinda French Gates Ambulatory Care Building at Children's Hospital and Regional Medical Center in Seattle may look more like an aquarium than a hospital. With life-size orcas floating above, a 20-foot octopus creeping across the wall, and portholes to photographs of local aquatic life, a kid just might forget where he or she's at.

The underwater theme, based on the marine life of the Puget Sound, is meant to reduce patient and family stress and provide visual cues for navigation. Aside from providing amusement, the major artwork in the facility alludes to ideas of nurturing relationships and interconnectedness in life. From the skylights that send sun rays through a glass orca sculpture like light filtering into the ocean, down to the terrazzo flooring on which designs of crabs, sea turtles, and fish live, the building stirs the imagination in both the child and the adult.

“It's really a happy place, so full of visual stimulation,” says Deborah Paine, the art coordinator for the project. “Sometimes it's just easy on the eyes. It creates an entire environment.”

HKS, Inc., worked with Paine, who incorporated local artist's works based on the Architecture firm's aquatic theme. The art selection process included a small subcommittee that included the hospital, HKS, and advisors who were knowledgeable in Pacific Northwest Native American artwork. Together, the teams selected the unique coastal artwork located throughout the facility.

Artist Marvin Oliver, a contemporary Native American artist who draws on his heritage for inspiration, created the six-ton orcas that swim through the building's atrium. A sign of good luck and a source of spirit and health for the native people of the Pacific Northwest, the orca is a natural fit for the children's hospital. Oliver specifically designed Mystical Journey to portray an “affectionate comfort zone,” like how a young child stays close to his parents, he says in his artist's project proposal.

“It's colorful and soothing and a visual display for the kids that captures their imagination,” says Oliver, who created the 26-foot-long work out of steel and cut glass.

Elsewhere in this ocean, as the terrazzo fish lead the way through an indoor seascape of wave-like benches, sea creature sculptures, and undulating walls and glass dividers, visitors come face-to-face with a 20-foot octopus in a mural titled Sound Garden. Native to the Puget Sound, the Giant Pacific Octopus— known as “Candy” to the children—extends its arms across the glass entrance to the radiology clinic.

Artist Bryn Barnard chose the octopus because of the “interesting graphic possibilities of the curvilinear tentacles,” he says. “I felt that this should be a backdrop to the [orca] sculpture. The mural makes the wall a visual environment, a point of visual interest rather than a neutral area. The large expanses of cool color, long horizontals, and sinuous, flowing lines are meant to help create a sense of calm and tranquility.”

The mural crosses three surfaces: perforated metal grating, gypsum drywall, and glass. Barnard says the design brings the different surfaces together “with continuous line and spatial relationships.” Oil painting on canvas is affixed to the drywall with wallpaper paste. The sand-carved glass panels are made of layers of tempered glass, fabricated by Seattle artist Irene D'Aloisio. The contractor, Sellen Construction Company, painted the perforated metal panels to Barnard's specifications.

The larger-than-life size of the octopus, the mural's colors, and the animal's arms that wrap around the clinic's entrance combine to create a nurturing, protective presence in the atrium. “I purposely used a bright saturated palette and strong light and shadow contrasts to accentuate scale and atmospheric perspective,” Barnard says. Considering that children might be frightened by the huge creature, Paine tested a large sketch with children and received the OK. Barnard also intentionally made it nonthreatening by taking some artistic license with the eyes. “All the parents think she's scary, but the kids love her,” says Principal Designer Jeffrey Stouffer, AIA, of HKS. Barnard believes his painting helps to lower patient and parent stress by creating a “quiet, playful, calming environment, distracting patients from illness or procedures.”

Letting the facility's currents of curved edges and blue atmospheric lighting float them over to the fourth floor waiting area, visitors find a two-story installation, titled Circle of Life, that resonates the ancient imagery of the Salish people, the first inhabitants of the Pacific Northwest. Artist Susan Point carved human faces and a puzzle of other animal and plant forms into yellow cedar, which was then molded into 36 connecting panels. In the center of the 12' × 12' work, a raised circle displays four salmon. A Salish artist, Point says the number “four” is significant to her heritage, which describes many world phenomena in sets of fours, such as the stages of life: the child, the adolescent, the adult, and the elder.

From the outer whirlwind of life forms to the inner salmon that revolve around the vortex-like central point, the art subtly reminds visitors of the interconnected, cyclical nature of life. Point wanted the work to remind viewers “that all life on earth depends on the sun's energy and that everything is linked and connected,” she says in her artist's proposal.

Even the imagery first created long ago by native people living near Puget Sound is strongly connected to the present through the interior design of the Melinda French Gates Ambulatory Care Building. As testament to this interconnection, Paine tells of a secondhand story of when the ambulatory facility first opened: A young autistic child and his parents walked through the door, into the atrium, and the boy, who had never spoken a word, stopped and looked up at the mother orca and child and said “whale.” “His parents,” Paine says, “were absolutely delighted.” HD

For further information, visit http://www.seattlechildrens.org.