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Penn’s new hospital belatedly recognizes pedestrian space is a public health issue | Inga Saffron

Because Philadelphia’s premier hospital district has prioritized easy car access, it has been slow to create public spaces where essential workers can go to decompress.

A bird's eye view of Penn Medicine’s new in-patient building, located next to the Penn Museum (lower left). A pocket park marks the entrance to the rapidly growing, and car-dominated, hospital district shared by Penn and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
A bird's eye view of Penn Medicine’s new in-patient building, located next to the Penn Museum (lower left). A pocket park marks the entrance to the rapidly growing, and car-dominated, hospital district shared by Penn and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.Read morePenn Medicine

The galactic starship has finally landed in West Philadelphia’s hospital district.

Planned long before the word COVID entered our daily conversation, Penn Medicine’s copper-colored ovoid officially opened its pod-bay doors on Halloween, making it the first hospital building to come online in Philadelphia since the pandemic began. The Pavilion, as Penn Medicine quaintly calls the building, is just as galactic in scale as it is in appearance. With 1.5 million square feet of space spread across 17 floors, the building is the horizontal equivalent of Philadelphia’s tallest skyscraper, the Comcast Technology Center, which, as it happens, was designed by the same British architecture firm, Foster + Partners.

All the statistics associated with this project are mind-blowingly big, but try to process this one: There are 47 operating rooms.

Hospitals of this size and complexity generally take so long to construct that they invariably become a part of our surroundings years before they are functioning, inhabited places. As the monolith assumed its current form over the last several years, I often shuddered at the sight of its massive facade, rising like a cliff behind the gentle foothills of the Penn Museum at 33rd and Spruce.

Maybe I’ve just grown used to it, but the broad backdrop bothers me less now that the $1.6 billion project is finished. Foster’s choice of warm brown metal for the facade, the firm’s meticulous detailing, and the design’s sympathetic nods to the historic museum have helped the pavilion settle into the skyline.

It’s the conditions at street level that interest — and concern — me more.

The new Pavilion essentially completes the university’s hospital district, which was mapped out in the early 2000s, and is now home to a collection of buildings owned by Penn, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Those with long memories will recall that much of the land between Spruce Street and University Avenue was once occupied by Philadelphia Convention Hall and the Civic Center, the precursor to the Pennsylvania Convention Center. After the downtown exhibition space opened in the mid-’90s, the city sold the old complex to the University of Pennsylvania so it could expand its hospital and medical school.

Even back then, it was obvious that Penn would eventually demolish the Civic Center auditorium, a historic, but undesignated, building that had played host to five political conventions, Martin Luther King Jr., the Beatles, and a sensational young basketball player named Wilt Chamberlain. In return, Philadelphia would gain a once-in-a-generation chance to build a modern hospital district from scratch.

» READ MORE: Penn’s $1.6 billion Pavilion tower, its biggest yet, opens with massive patient transfer

Given that so many older urban hospitals are severely space-constrained and must make do with maze-like warrens of buildings, this was a huge opportunity. Philadelphia has always been a medical powerhouse, and today “meds and eds” are the foundation of its economy. Penn and CHOP, we were told, would have plenty of room to create an orderly, pedestrian-friendly campus, dotted with pleasant green spaces where essential workers and family members could go to relax. A detailed master plan was prepared to guide Penn and CHOP through the 20-year process.

Instead, we got the same old clutter. Today, the hospital district is a suburban-style, auto-dominated enclave, an architectural zoo of glass buildings designed by a who’s who of famous architects — Vinoly, Pelli, SOM and, now, Foster. The neon signs at the tops of those buildings speak directly to the highway, not the people on Philadelphia’s streets.

In their initial vision, the master planners had envisioned something quite different. Yes, most patients and visitors were expected to arrive by car, but service roads would funnel motorists to parking garages tucked behind the hospital buildings. Diverting that traffic would allow the district’s main street — still called Civic Center Boulevard — to function as a true urban space, with wide sidewalks, protected bike lanes, and comfortable nooks for outdoor dining.

The problem was that every new building insisted on having a dedicated valet drop-off at its front door, rather than inside the garages. Space that had been intended for parks and restaurant tables was commandeered for driveways and porte cocheres, with Penn’s Perelman Center for Advanced Medicine being one of the worst offenders. Not only is the result hostile to pedestrians, the traffic is also horrendous.

Even before COVID-19 reminded us of the importance of providing for the well-being of our health workers, there was a disconnect between the district’s medical mission and its approach to public space.

Penn and CHOP love to boast about having some of the most advanced health-care wizardry inside their buildings, machines that are capable of curing cancer and other diseases. Yet they seem oblivious to the environmental conditions that contribute to poor health in the first place. During a lunchtime visit last week, I saw only a handful of pedestrians venture south of the Perelman Center. Although it was a brilliant fall day, the benches and lunch tables were largely empty. Because such places foster so little public life, Clemson University architecture professor David J. Allison, who oversees a graduate program in health-care design, calls them “medical slums.”

Penn hasn’t completely rejected this old script, but its new Pavilion puts more emphasis on providing amenities for its employees and pedestrians than any of its previous buildings. The nicest feature of the project — perhaps the nicest element in the entire hospital district — is the landscaped pedestrian walkway inserted into the gap between the Penn Museum and the Pavilion.

Designed by Ground Reconsidered, the walkway leads directly into SEPTA’s regional rail station via an overpass, but it is much more than a transit conduit. With the sculpted brick walls of Wilson Eyre’s 19th-century museum as a backdrop, you feel as if you were navigating a narrow street in an Italian hill town, albeit one with a slick metal-and-glass behemoth for a neighbor. But because Foster’s architects took such care with the facade, especially the color and the setbacks, the passage (dubbed the Discovery Walkway) feels cozy and serene.

Not only are there shady places to sit, you also can admire views of the museum’s little-seen modern wing, designed by Romaldo Giurgola in the 1970s. Once construction is complete, you will be able to dip down into an Olin-designed secluded garden next to the museum’s great rotunda. If Penn ever makes good on a plan to demolish its outdated Silverstein Pavilion across the street, the passage would be connected to Hamilton Walk and Penn’s network of pedestrian streets.

Penn also managed to capture some real estate on Civic Center Boulevard for the public. The site’s long, narrow shape (once home to a hotel) effectively forced the designers to put the garage and driveway on the side, allowing the front to be left clear of cars. An outdoor seating bowl wraps the Pavilion building’s curved facade. Slightly submerged below the street level, it provides a nice place to eat lunch and relax. Looking through the lobby’s curved glass walls, you have a prime view of Maya Lin’s branching sculpture Decoding the Tree of Life.

Inside, the Pavilion is just as impressive and state-of-the-art as you would imagine a $1.6 billion hospital to be. The 504 patient rooms are arranged around the perimeter of the building, giving every patient a picture-window view of the city skyline. Each one is private and equipped with a pull-out sofa bed for visitors. If the rooms weren’t packed with enough screens and gadgets to qualify as ICUs, you might mistake them for the suites Foster designed for the Four Seasons at the Comcast Center.

These features have pretty much become standard in new hospitals, which are all vying for paying customers. But the long narrow site worked particularly to Penn’s advantage. By putting the patient rooms against the windows, Foster was able to locate all the medical services, nursing stations, conference rooms and storage down the building’s spine. Theoretically, that means Penn won’t have to store equipment or computers in the corridors, which are broad and airy — the ultimate luxury. Because the oblong structure tapers at the ends, like an aircraft carrier, the architectural team (which includes HDR, as well as Foster) also took advantage of the leftover space to carve out gracious employee and visitor lounges, all with spectacular views.

From the time Penn established its medical school — the nation’s first — in the 18th century, it has helped set the standards for the profession. But as the medical historian and Drexel University professor Steven J. Peitzman has written, Penn often let intellectual exploration take a back seat to the practical and pragmatic concerns.

Giving cars the run of the hospital district was a symptom of that approach. If Penn hopes to once again become the nation’s premier medical institution, it will have to make sure its campus environment is just as innovative and humane as the fabulous medical technologies and treatments inside its buildings.