Institutional Neighbors

About a month ago I became very familiar with our local hospital (especially the maternity wing and the cafeteria). This got me thinking about how institutional buildings fit into the urban transect.

Hospitals and other institutional buildings typically have rigid architectural programs. Unlike commercial office or retail spaces, institutional tenants have specific needs for their buildings to accomplish.

Unfortunately, architects rarely find ways for these unique structures and campuses to blend into the urban fabric of the city. Instead, institutional buildings tend to feel isolated from their immediate neighbors.

Two examples from places I’ve lived. In spite of its close proximity to the small town of Chelsea, Michigan St. Joseph’s Hospital is an institutional campus that ignores its context. The main buildings are surrounded by a moat of green space literally cutting off the building from the city. While Sparrow Hospital, in nearby Lansing fits reasonably well into its urban setting by filling out its lot and approaching the street.

City administrators, seeing institutions as their jurisdiction’s anchor tenants, may also be unwilling to impose design standards on these buildings. In some cases, institutional buildings may be exempt from local regulations, putting all of the responsibility on the architects to be good urban neighbors.

In future blog posts I will share good examples of institutional buildings that respect their surroundings.