At the David H. Koch Center for Cancer Care at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, family-scale waiting areas, a full-service café, snappy work pods, and event venues thread cancer treatment into outpatients’ everyday routines. Just south of Midtown, within the waiting room at the Mount Sinai Center for Transgender Medicine and Surgery, lounge seats were selected for their “wraparound feeling that expresses warmth and comfort for patients who are often undergoing difficult procedures,” says architect George K George, founder of GKG, which designed the space. GKG configured those seats around Sol LeWitt’s WD #1173 Bands of Six Colors in Four Directions to signal the world-class quality of the center’s medical care, and it placed the entire waiting area next to historic windows that inspiringly frame daylight and views from the former 1920s bank building.
In design decisions big and small, the makers of health and wellness facilities are creating gestures that welcome patients and enhance their sense of personal agency. Antiseptic, kit-of-parts spaces of yore, which made medical care feel like a personal travail sequestered from (or the sole focus of) a patient’s life, have transformed in terms of program, spatial organization, and materials. Jeff Brand, a Perkins Eastman principal and executive director who leads that firm’s healthcare practice, explains that “patients are not necessarily thinking about the physicality of the healthcare setting when they pursue medical care, but we’ll do anything possible to subliminally mitigate their anxiety.” Opened in 2020, the Sloan Kettering center is a collaboration between Perkins Eastman, Ennead, and iCrave.
The quick emergence of Alda Ly Architecture (ALA) on the healthcare scene further reveals the power of a patient-first perspective. This ascent was not necessarily part of the vision of Founder and Principal Alda Ly for ALA, which got its start in 2017 with commissions from The Wing, the all-female co-working club that folded in mid-2022. Yet a year after her studio’s founding, the holistic medical startup Parsley Health hired ALA to design a 5,500-square-foot flagship in the Flatiron District “precisely because we had no experience in healthcare,” the architect explains. “They wanted their space to be different from a standard medical office.”
Founded by Dr. Robin Berzin in 2016, Parsley Health is a membership-based medical practice specializing in preventative care and treatment of chronic diseases. Dr. Berzin’s consideration for holistic medicine and whole-body thinking prompted ALA to approach the Parsley space as a driver of the occupants’ well-being, in turn. “Psychological comfort and biophilia obviously factored largely into our research,” Ly recalls, and the highlight of the resulting scheme was a norm-busting member lounge and adjoining café full of sunlight and plants, overlooking Fifth Avenue.
The completed space proved to be a catapult. ALA’s design of Parsley’s 2,500-square-foot Los Angeles office immediately followed, as did commissions from similar startups. In 2021 ALA completed two inaugural spaces for Tia—a women’s health provider that combines primary care with OB/GYN, mental health, and wellness services—in both LA and Phoenix, as well as the integrative women’s health center Liv in Washington, DC. Back in New York, ALA was responsible for the first clinic of HealthQuarters, a collection of Mount Sinai Health System and independent practitioners arrayed over three floors of a turn-of-the-last-century loft, as well as all-new Soho and Williamsburg outposts of Tia.
Ly and ALA Director Tania Chau observe that, in addition to manifesting differences in organizational mission and branding, the studio’s work for healthcare clients has become increasingly responsive toward patients’ state of mind. “At the time of the Parsley commission, I was pregnant and going to a lot of doctor’s visits, and inevitably you get turned around and can’t get out,” Ly recalls. Wayfinding has since kicked into high gear, with Chau pointing to the Washington, DC–based Liv project as emblematic: “We wanted to make it easy to navigate, so we created teal and mauve gradients for two corridors that intersect in a clean moment.” ALA has applied additional nuance to circulation by, among other examples, embedding interstitial spaces within HealthQuarters’ hallways so that exiting patients can take time to process good or bad news before returning to the urban fray.
While ALA’s multiple projects are pushing the vocabulary of health and wellness interiors in new directions, they also reflect an ongoing industry-wide shift in principles. As Brand, the Perkins Eastman architect, says, “We and other firms are trying to create more hospitality-like environments that are less clinical, less scary, and show that healthcare providers are meant to provide for you.” Indeed, while an institution like Memorial Sloan Kettering and a young, member-based service such as Parsley might seem worlds apart, ultimately the architects of these spaces are “aiming for dignified settings that make human beings feel accepted and engaged.” As Chau puts it, “It’s about the ability to be empathetic.”
DAVID SOKOL is a longtime New York-area design journalist who is now based in the Hudson Valley. His October 2022 book, Hamptons Modern (Monacelli), is a follow-up to 2018’s Hudson Modern. He also contributes regularly to Architectural Record and Dwell magazines.