How do you make a children's hospital really a children's hospital? And how do you blend the design of the new hospital in with a neighboring oak forest? These were challenges architect Angela Fritsch took very seriously in researching and designing the Princess Margaret Children's Hospital, sited in a beautiful wooded hospital park in Darmstadt, Germany. Fritsch says that when

she and the hospital Director, Chief Surgeon, and Nursing Director toured area hospitals, all they saw for the most part were ward-like structures with plastic-covered furniture, synthetic millwork and darkened corridors, with little natural light. They wanted something for children, and that meant colorful, intriguing, and filled with natural light and materials. The Chief Surgeon, noting he wanted this hospital to be a landmark in the highly populated Rhein-Main area of Germany, added his specific criteria: indestructible, vandal-proof, and “suckable” by curious little ones trying to taste the world.

Then came the second challenge: blending in a three-story, 80-bed structure with a forest of elderly oaks and beech trees. The main hospital had been situated near the forest for 70 years, but now the new building next to it would intrude. The answer, which didn't seem radical to former sculptor Fritsch, was a clover-like form based on the classic Alvar Aalto vase (figures 1, 2).

An interesting and useful feature of this form, says Fritsch, was the ability it gave to expose all the patients' rooms to natural light along the outside walls (figure 3). Where some walls get more light than others, the rooms for longer-stay patients are located. Each room also has a balcony that overlooks the park. Natural light is also admitted into the core of the building through light wells (figure 4), which illuminate the central nursing station and the chapel in the small cellar.

Obviously, a building of such unusual shape posed technical challenges for mechanicals to be installed along the curving exterior walls and interior corridors. MEP planning was detailed and meticulous.

Where the building really comes alive for children, of course, is in the interiors (figure 5), starting with the generous corridors lined with large, imaginative toys (figures 6, 7, 8). The two floors that house the patient rooms are each designed for a particular age group-for example, wall décor for small children is flowers, for adolescents, round mirrors. The toys were custom-made and, Fritsch notes, occasionally posed problems for installers accustomed to harder-edged features.

The wards on the upper two floors, 40 beds to a floor, are specialized to patient groups: premature and newborns, intensive care, toddlers, and school children. Each room (figure 9) has two beds for patients and two guest beds for parents. The cupboards are pearwood veneer, with natural wood throughout (figures 10, 11). Each patient room has a bathroom in the shape of an amoeba (figure 12).

Even though there are plenty of play areas scattered throughout the corridors, the hospital remains strikingly quiet, says Fritsch. The combination of rounded shape and acoustic boards in the ceilings contributes to this. Fritsch also notes that the short corridors that are a byproduct of this design (figure 13) have proven to be a boon to the medical staff. “With longer corridors, little patients are always encountering physicians with lists of unanswerable questions. There is less chance of that happening in a short and wide corridor with playground-like spots.”

Asked what she learned from this project, Fritsch said she was surprised to hear that a nice design like this would not be appreciated by patients. But it turned out differently-patients report that instead of feeling like they're in a hospital, they feel like they're on holidays! Encouraged by this, she is planning to apply the same principles to the design of a new school, the director of which had seen the new Princess Margaret's and wanted more of the same. HD

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Healthcare Design 2009 October;9(10):22-29