The Modern style-either you love it or you hate it. The creamy white villas of LeCorbusier, the gleaming glass towers of Mies van der Rohe, the weighty concrete brutalism of Breuer-all of them confront the viewer with a blank faéade stripped of all ornamentation. “Purity”-a step up from the fussy, tricked-up faéades of yesteryear-is the Modern watchword.

Needless to say, not all architects agree. Among the leaders, if not the leader, in the 21st-century anti-modernist drive in healthcare design is Robert Pratt, CEO of the Chicago-based Pratt Design Studio. Paradoxically one of the younger practitioners in the field, Pratt looks for inspiration in the turn of the 20th-century work of Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright. Most particularly, he is restoring the notion of ornamental texturing of surfaces, both on exteriors and carried within to interior spaces and accoutrements. It is not ornamentation for its own sake or to emulate nature-Pratt sees this as an opportunity for healthcare organizations to brand themselves, with specific unique identifying symbols and logos, both without and within. He adds that they can achieve this with minimal impact on project budgets. Pratt has thus far applied these ideas to four healthcare projects in Chicago and the midwest. Recently, he shared the design concepts behind the Unique Identifier with HEALTHCARE DESIGN Editor Richard L. Peck.

Richard L. Peck: You seem to be an architectural iconoclast-rejecting the Modernists for rejecting ornamentation. Why?

Robert Pratt, AIA: I'm hoping that we can provide an extension of the Sullivan/Wright approach that will satisfy today's esthetics. The Modernists contended that the expression of ornamentation around the turn of the century was becoming stale and devoid of meaning, and there was the feeling, understandably, that the Greek and Roman models so popular at that time had no relevance to 20th-century society. What happened with the Modernists, though, is that we went from a cacophony of ornamentation to absolute zero. Brent C. Brolin's excellent book Architectural Ornament: Banishment and Return discusses this. Not only were we told that ornamentation was too expensive, but that the Modernist alternative was artistically superior. This meant that clients could have it both ways and, as a result, the Modern style has lasted almost a hundred years. What we are saying is that the buildings of our era should express who we are and who our clients are.

Peck: What you are proposing is not simply ornamentation, but a unique design element that means something for the client, correct?

Pratt: That's right. We're working with clients to come up with meaningful symbolism that can be worked into the building faéade and within the interior as well. We started this, for example, by devising an abstract of two human figures holding hands, along with a pulse sign, for the Advocate Condell Medical Center in Libertyville, Illinois (figure 1). We eventually ran out of time to do everything we wanted, but what we demonstrated was that this could be done very inexpensively on the faéade using precast concrete panels poured in a rubber mold derived from a 3-D computer file of the figure. The figure is repeated on resin strips and on frosted glass in the interior as well. This replicating process made it inexpensive-about $7,000 out of a total $100 million budget. We have since found that you can use this technique with virtually any material that can be poured-not just precast concrete, but cast resins. You can also use stereolithography and glass etching to carry these symbols throughout the interior.

Detail of the abstract design on Advocate Condell Medical Center in Libertyville, Illinois

Peck: Isn't it difficult and time-consuming, though, for an organization to agree upon appropriate symbols that will be both meaningful and workable?

Pratt: Yes, it is, and it is one of the reasons why it hasn't been done by others. The process takes time, even though our fees are no different from anyone else's. What saves it is that the materials and technique used can be repetitive and relatively inexpensive. You have to begin by trying to understand the client's business, their culture, and the culture of the area around them. What about their organization or mission are they most proud of? In this area, of course, everyone has an opinion and you don't always get it right the first time. When they do get there, though, they're very proud of the result.

Of course, everything in these projects is scrutinized thoroughly by very fiscally conservative business people. What you come up with has to be not only appropriately symbolic but cost-effective.

For all these reasons, we've been taking baby steps with developing this process and becoming more adventurous as we go along.

Peck: After Condell, what came next?

Pratt: At Elmhurst Memorial Healthcare's new Integrated Campus (figure 2), here in Chicago, we developed an abstraction of a sycamore, or planetree, under which Hippocrates supposedly practiced medicine. The tree symbol is carried in precast bands around the exterior of the building and inside in interior water features, frosted glass panels, and stained glass windows (figure 3). Another Chicago academic medical center we developed this for features a sword and shield motif, incorporated into column capitals, frosted glass, and other features.

An abstraction of a sycamore, or planetree, under which Hippocrates supposedly practiced medicine used at Elmhurst Memorial Healthcare's new Integrated Campus in Chicago

The tree symbol is carried in precast bands around the exterior of the building and inside in interior water features, frosted glass panels, and stained glass windows at Elmhurst Memorial Healthcare's new Integrated Campus

Another is the Alton Memorial Hospital, located in Alton, Illinois. Because this is a riverfront community in a rural area, we looked for imagery indicating harvest time. We came up with joined bands that, put together, form a complete sun (figure 4). It has a hopeful, joyous look, and a linear aspect that I like very much.

At Alton Memorial Hospital in Alton, Illinois, joined bands that, put together, form a complete sun were used

Finally there is St. Peters Hospital in St. Peters, Missouri. Here we have the classic crossed keys-the “keys to the kingdom”-abstracted and used as a motif throughout, including on the column pilasters (figure 5).

At St. Peters Hospital in St. Peters, Missouri, crossed keys were abstracted and used as a motif throughout, including on the column pilasters

Peck: And yet, in general outline, these buildings still have a modern look, don't they?

Pratt: That's true, and what the unique identifier approach is doing is negating the belief that you can't have ornamental architecture on a modern building. Modern buildings haven't been thought of in this way. It's true, though, that people these days are doing things to faéades using texture and colors and so forth to jazz them up. To me, though, the ornamentation has to have meaning for the organization.

Peck: Where are you going from here with this?

Pratt: Thanks to modern building technology, there's never been a time in history when it's been easier to incorporate artistic elements in a building. To carry forward with this, I would love to hire a sculptor as part of our design studio and integrate him or her into our work, much in the way that builders and sculptors worked together as teams to build the great cathedrals.

Peck: Isn't the sculptural look for buildings coming back, with the work for example of Candella, Nervi, and Calatrava?

Pratt: Yes, but I would say that what's been lost with large-scale sculptural architecture is taking the same sensibility down to ground level; to me, the grand sculptural buildings often don't work at the human level. As a counter-example, right here in Chicago you always see people gathered around the Tribune Tower downtown. Why? Because its faéade is highly detailed at the ground look and offers a lot to look at. On the other hand, you never see anybody looking at the IBM building. The Hancock and Sears Towers do express the building skeleton but not the skin. To me, a building should say something to people about who you are. HD

For further information, contact Robert Pratt at Pratt Design Studio, LTD, at 773.206.6476 or rpratt@prattdesign.com.

Healthcare Design 2009 September;9(9):58-62