More Than Meets The Eye

~ by Colleen Cassidy

 “Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder”. While this may be a widely known and commonly used phrase, we never take a moment to truly grasp its significance. Just as the quote suggests, we all have different definitions of what is truly beautiful. To some, it may be the vivid pigments of wildflowers outside the window or a mountain vista capped with snow. For others, it could be walking into an architecturally designed space in which natural light floods the walls. Beauty can also be as simple as seeing a smile on the one you love. 

But no matter the person or their definition of beauty, one commonality lies amongst them all: sight is one of the most valuable and precious gifts one can have, which is why so much dedication, time, advancement and technology has been invested into the field of optometry and eye care. Even the kick-off of the New Year highlights the extreme importance of eye care with January serving as National Eye Care Month. But beyond the importance of check-ups, surgeries, eye health and the professionals that make it all happen, there’s another essential piece that sometimes goes unrecognized: the buildings in which optical medicine is practiced.

Just as technologies and discoveries continue to advance the field of eye care, so do the facilities that house these medical practices. There is a dynamic parallel beginning to emerge between medicine and design, in that modern medicine seeks to be mirrored by a modern enclosure. The healthcare profession is integrating design aesthetics within its architectural spaces that celebrate the innovation being performed within. One could say that healthcare is beginning to reconcile the dichotomy that you are “either a product of you environment or your environment is product of you”. The inspiration of modern medicine should be reflected in its built environment while the built environment should inspire the continuation of advanced medical practices. As opposed to one or the other, they instead need to function harmoniously as products of one another.

                   Moyes Eye Center, Kansas City, MO

The key factor in this movement is preparation for the future. Modern aesthetics in a facility can engage us with sleek lines, pre-finished metal panels, 3form acrylic and custom patterned wood ceilings. The greatest challenge however in healthcare design is integrating a realistic space plan that addresses both current and future needs. This can be more complex than it seems. A hurdle amongst owner and architect is the architect understanding the owner’s current program spaces versus the needs and sizes of future program spaces. The architect’s role is to collaborate with the owner on their desires for tangible spaces and surfaces with the intent of applying those desires to future functions. A building, especially in healthcare, is only affective as long as it is usable.  The architect and the owner must clearly understand the facility’s intentions from the beginning in order to avoid functionality flaws and unusable spaces down to road. The architect in part must function as a sort of liaison between an owner’s current space needs and the expectation of the future space use. 

An essential set underlying of elements must be executed when designing a place for modern medicine: space efficiencies, quality of light and scale. While all these design principles may seem commonplace in theory, it is astonishing how many of these critical pieces are disregarded. The true challenge is breaking free from old habits and understanding the needs of the current world. An example of this is steering free from the traditional “airport waiting spaces” in which people are lined in a room much like rows of livestock. Instead, a waiting room should be considered as a room within a room, an area of congregation in which social interaction or individual reflection can take place. It should evoke an extension of one’s living room.

A connection to nature and light brings an aura of calm and connection to one’s surroundings, alleviating the once sterile and disconnected feel one would have in previous bunker-like hospital halls. Anticipating any form of procedure is stressful and distraction from that discomfort is craved, whether the patient sees it or not. But bringing natural light and connection to nature in an eye clinic presents another obstacle in design. Visitors are in a fragile state. Whether it’s an infection, recovery from surgery or dilation, most people within the clinic will have sensitivity to direct light but also do not want to be enclosed in a dark, depressing space. This can be overcome with some simple design techniques such as framing windows or curtain walls with 12-15 foot setbacks from the building exterior. This introduces an overhang to provide proper shade for indirect natural lighting and conjointly composes an opportunity for exterior coves and patios to be used throughout the day by visitors and staff members alike. This technique also allows for greater spans of fenestration to render a heightened scale in avoidance of cave-like interior.

Medicine is a beautiful benefaction in life. It enhances, strengthens and preserves the integrity of our well-being and of the ones we love around us. It reveals solutions we may have never conceived and transforms the phrase improbable to probable. But the conquests of healthcare are silent; demure in spirit. Medicine is sometimes taken for granted. It is sometimes seen as an expectation instead of a miracle.

At the core of it all, the beautiful gift that medicine gives back to our lives and our bodies is the same gift that a building can provide to its users: function. Whether it’s modern medicine or modern design, beyond their boasts, claims and appearances, what makes them beautiful are their abilities to bring function back into our lives.