A children’s hospital that doesn’t look or feel like one

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Canada’s largest children’s rehabilitation hospital broke the institutional mould in February when it opened an extraordinary new building designed to support healing in children coping with disabling injuries and illnesses and congenital disabilities. The new Bloorview Kids Rehab facility draws on the timeless beauty of stone, wood and glass; connects children with the surrounding ravine; and houses artworks and exhibits designed to spark exploration and promote resiliency.

“Our concept is of a quiet, supportive, reflective environment that is full of natural, quality materials and appeals to all ages,” says lead interior designer Anne Carlyle. “In most hospitals, children experience such disconnection from the normal rhythms of life. Because this site bridges the cityscape and the natural environment of a ravine – with extraordinary views of both – we had the opportunity to reinforce that connection.”

Instead of the sterile plastic finishes found in most hospitals, the interior uses a rich palette of limestone, brick, hardwood, glass, zinc and ceramic tile. “These materials communicate a kind of respect for human life, they’re timeless and universally appealing,” Ms. Carlyle says. “You can just imagine young children running their hands over them to feel the grain and texture.”

Neutral colours in the wood and stone are balanced with warm accent colours of deep plum, granny-smith apple, ochre yellow, gentle blue and “a thread of red.” According to Ms. Carlyle, “They’re not in-your-face primary colours. Can you imagine a child living here for a few months and being stuck in ‘the purple wing?’ A purple environment is not what life is about. We want children to experience this flow of variety and exposure to different materials, colours and shapes.”

Interspersed with this quiet, soothing background are “islands of interest” – pieces of art, interactive exhibits, a saltwater aquarium of exotic fish and breathtaking views of the skyline and ravine made possible by floor-to-ceiling windows.Reflecting themes of transformation, nature and the history of the century-old organization, these installations “express its spirit and inspire an overall sense of well being and delight,” Ms. Carlyle explains. “Part of the journeying is that children come upon these focal points with something special to see or touch or do.” They also act as directional landmarks.

Artists from Bloorview’s renowned Spiral Garden have developed pieces based on the arts-garden philosophy that interaction with creative processes fosters healing. Jan MacKie and her team fashioned a breathtaking curtain of 5,000 handmade, coloured glass beads. Children will trigger patterns of lights on the beads as they move by, emulating the Northern Lights.

Two of the 32 installations involve glass art that is built into the architecture. To Make this Voyage is a canopy of two glass panels at the hospital’s entrance with in-motion silhouettes of children inspired by artist Stuart Reid’s visit. “They wiggled as I traced them. I told them to pretend they were flying,” Mr. Reid says.

Mr. Reid paints with silver stain that is kiln-fired, transforming it into golden amber. This amber is the thread that ties the canopy piece with To Cross this Passage – a series of 72 glass louvres by Mr. Reid installed on the glass bridge that joins the west and east wings of the L-shaped building. Three rows of louvres will hang on each of four levels, set at 45 degrees to the wall to project a luminous, almost liquid, pattern of coloured light on the floor below.

To complement the painterly washes of amber on the louvres, each floor will have its own signature colour – red, yellow, blue, green – to create its own identity. A poetic script will appear intermittently on the louvres, sometimes upside down so that the words will project right side up on the floor when the sun shines through. “It will be a journey to discover and unravel what the words say,” Ms. Carlyle says.

In the Grocery Foundation Resource and Education Centre, a carved limestone relief offers a natural history lesson on plants found in the neighbouring ravine. In the school lobby, a map of a fanciful group of animals – each depicting a constellation of stars in an ancient map of the sky – is sandblasted onto recycled blackboard slate. Children can experiment with chalk and their own creations on untreated slate.

Floors of wood, limestone and linoleum in high-traffic areas of Bloorview Kids Rehab were chosen because they provide the least amount of resistance to wheelchairs and other assistive devices. Thresholds from one to another were kept to a minimum. Carpet is introduced at stopping places – such as waiting areas – and in destinations such as a therapist’s office. “It’s soft, acoustically quieter and provides a sense of comfort and intimacy,” says Ms. Carlyle.

The new building was made possible by a $56.7 million investment by the Ontario government and Bloorview’s most successful fundraising campaign to date, which is close to reaching its $45 million goal.

A small group of Bloorview’s senior staff and managers, architects, the design team and a parent representative visited eight renowned children’s rehabilitation programs in the United States – many of them located within acute-care hospitals – to seek out best practices in rehab-supportive design before embarking on Bloorview Kids Rehab. According to Ms. Carlyle, the new Toronto facility is in a class of its own. “To have a freestanding, dedicated children’s rehab facility on this scale, with this range of programs, in one place and of this quality – I don’t know of another one. I haven’t been this excited about the completion of a project in many years. It’s going to be extraordinary.”