At the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Smilow Cancer Hospital Wednesday, nothing about the festive atmosphere and teary-eyed attendants suggested the controversial design process of the building — a process that involved extensive negotiations between hospital administrators, the building’s architects and city officials.
The 14-floor, 497,000 square-foot hospital is the most comprehensive cancer treatment facility between Boston and New York, but the architectural elements of this ambitious building have met criticism from city officials and New Haven residents, nearly two dozen city officials interviewed said. Though all city and hospital officials interviewed alluded to the controversies sparked by the building’s design, none consented to discuss the details, citing the celebratory spirit of the building’s opening as a reason to bury past debates.
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The parties involved in the project’s design process were the Yale-New Haven Hospital, the city and the Boston-based architecture firm Sheppley Bulfinch Richardson & Abott. University President Richard Levin said the University was not involved in the architectural planning of the hospital, though the building is located on Yale’s medical campus.
“[The Smilow Hospital] was not reviewed by Yale or the Yale Corporation,” Levin said. “Yale-New Haven [Hospital] hired the architect — it’s their building.”
School of Architecture Dean Robert A.M. Stern also emphasized the University’s complete detachment from the building’s design and declined to discuss its architectural merits.
“It’s not my building, and I’m not going to comment on it,” Stern said.
The Smilow Hospital is located blocks away from single-story family houses, and the overwhelming shift in scale in the neighborhood was one of the primary concerns during the 2006 design presentations by hospital administrators to the New Haven City Plan Commission.
“[City officials] were concerned with the building’s height and the shadows it would cast,” said Al Lucas, the legislative liaison to the Board of Aldermen.
But hospital officials would not budge, Vin Petrini, Yale-New Haven Hospital’s spokesman explained.
“This building has too much potential, and we really couldn’t sacrifice space,” he said.
And as negotiations continued, problems regarding the hospital’s impact on the neighborhood became central to the design process. In an attempt to increase pedestrian interaction with the building, and also to make the hospital seem less daunting, Mayor John DeStefano Jr. asked hospital officials to reserve the building’s first floor for retail space. But the hospital found it difficult to sacrifice the first floor, which is now home to the hospital’s specialized Women’s Cancer Center, Petrini said.
Working with the architects, hospital officials instead tried to find ways to break up the scale of the building, allowing it to interact with the surrounding medical campus and the nearby residential neighborhood.
“We really tried to do a lot of layering on the façade of the building and a lot of work with solids and voids,” said Jonathan Gyory, one of the project’s principle architects.
The exterior of the hospital, made of a new terra cotta-like material developed specifically for this building, is broken up by a number of glass-faced rooms that jut out considerably from the main body of the structure. Aside from adding movement to the façade of the building, Gyory explained, the juxtaposition of the terra-cotta and the glass creates a “playful element” that makes the building’s exterior friendly and aesthetically pleasing to viewers.
But many still have reservations about the exterior of the building. Anstress Farwell GRD ’78, President of the New Haven Urban Design League, called the building’s façade “hideous.”
“It’s looming, kind of like an axe falling,” she said.
But others interviewed, including aldermen initially opposed to the building’s aesthetics, said they have warmed up to the hospital’s appearance.
“A lot of people at first said, ‘Eh, it’s ugly.’ But the more we see it, the better it looks,” hospital security officer Fred Croog said. “Now, it’s acceptable.”
Croog said spending time in the building allows visitors to appreciate the building and forgive its exterior.
Echoing similar sentiments, Ward 7 Alderwoman Frances “Bitsie” Clark said the building’s interior, in contrast to its contentious façade, has been well received by visitors.
The building uses a Planetree Model — a floor-plan theory that places patients’ rooms around centrally located facilities, which Petrini said enhances the hospital’s focus on patient care.
Patients will also have access to a rooftop patio located on the structure’s seventh floor — the “Healing Garden,” which features a small stream and planted flora intended to have a soothing effect on patients.
With hospital administrators emphasizing the building’s functional interior, officials involved with the project said the initial controversies surrounding the building’s presence and exterior will remain in the past.
“We’ve closed the door on that chapter, and so has the mayor,” Yale-New Haven Hospital spokeswoman Katie Murphy said.