Zeinab Saiwalla speaks to SOM architects, Mustafa Abadan and Scott Habjan, about the inspiration behind Sheikh Khalifa Medical City’s hospitality-driven facility
From the world’s tallest tower, Burj Khalifa, to the highly-acclaimed engineering marvel, Cayan Tower, US-based architectural firm Skidmore Owings and Merrill (SOM) has time and again set precedents for innovative design in the Middle East.
It came as no surprise then, that the Abu Dhabi Health Services Company (SEHA) commissioned SOM to design a landmark healthcare project in Abu Dhabi. Complete with a town centre, 5.5 acres of centrally located public green space and 850 patient beds, the project seeks to transform perceptions about both the healthcare environment and patient experience.
This new facility is planned to rise on the site of the existing Sheikh Khalifa Medical City (SKMC), which will undergo a phased demolition to make way for future hospital-related facilities and mixed-use development on the expansive 300,000m2 plot.
But more than just another massive medical complex, the vision for the project is to build three hospitals under one roof so that SKMC will come to be a ‘city within the city’, explains Mustafa Abadan, principal, SOM and design partner for SKMC.
“The client has very ambitious goals and has looked to us to create something special and unique, which is what we set out to do with this project,“ adds Scott Habjan, associate director, SOM and senior designer for SKMC.
Tasked with this challenge, SOM’s architects chose to design the trio-hospital complex, which consists of a general hospital with a level-one trauma centre, a women’s hospital and a pediatric hospital, with a keen focus on hospitality.
The reason for this, as Abadan explains, is due to the fact that, “the whole notion of healthcare around the world is beginning to change from basically taking care of sick patients when they have really gotten ill, to being able to take care of them before they get into the hospitalisation phase.”
“As such the idea behind these plans is to make a hospital less institutional looking and more hospitable because we know that a hotel environment is generally more soothing for people,” says Abadan.
Practically, as Habjan explains, there is a very concerted effort in the design of the hospital to create a separation between the front-of-house and back-of-house operations. The patient and visitor experience are carefully controlled, to minimise exposure to the more institutional service components of the facility.
For example, both staff and materials enter from very discreet locations and are vertically distributed so that they go directly to their point of operation, allowing for a sense of tranquility and serenity to pervade the hospital’s public spaces.
“To the degree that you have a separation of the public face and the operating face of the hospital, and the more those things can be kept independent of one another, the more one can create a hospitality- like environment for the patients,” elaborates Abadan.
Although there was considerable effort to incorporate a hospitality environment in SKMC’s design, Abadan notes that because SKMC is a public hospital, the architects were especially cognizant not to overdo the hotel-like atmosphere.
“There are certainly places where we have worked elsewhere that have a higher degree of the hospitality notion, but here together with our client, we were balancing the issue of both aesthetics and operations, as well as the proper perception of this hospital,” Abadan says.
He continues: “There is no being ostentatious with SKMC. The hospital is here to make people well and to take care of them, and it is to give them comfort and to give them an environment, including outdoor spaces that are healing, but certainly not in any way superfluous.”
After consultation with SEHA and the other design consultants, SOM developed unique identities for each of three hospitals while incorporating unifying elements to ensure that the SKMC campus evoked a sense of community.
“The women’s wing, the pediatric wing and the general hospital all share a common DNA in an architectural way but also maintain a level of independence and distinction so that people who arrive at the hospital have a sense of where they are going,” says Abadan.
For example, the exterior sun screens, which characterise the bed tower facades, vary from the simple rhythm of the general hospital to the playful colours and patterns in the pediatric section, to the intricate mashrabiya-inspired geometries of the women’s hospital.
“The aesthetics of the hospital is all from a very modern-ish point of view, but there are plenty of details and elements that connect it back to the Middle East. It is something we tried to work into the design in a very balanced and delicate way,” Abadan says.
To unify these three distinct hospitals, the architects considered several organisational options that ranged from an elongated spine scheme to an organically cellular scheme.
Ultimately, the centralised scheme was chosen since it allowed for an effective integration of public green spaces throughout the site while establishing a strong centre for the superblock.
In addition, since the centralised organisation commands the site from its interior lot location, it provides a clear focus for the existing medical buildings and adequately informs future campus development.
The scheme organises the building into three major components: a perimeter garden; a two-storey plinth which houses shared medical functions and public amenities; and three distinct bed towers. Furthermore, a series of internal courtyards and boulevards organise program modules within the plinth and bring light and nature into the large floor plates, assisting in wayfinding.
“It is also very much part of the history of buildings here, which are generally very low and organised around these courtyards. There is a lot of parallel between indigenous architecture to the region and how we integrated those elements to the hospital plan,” explains Abadan.
He continues: “The ideas of sustainability, in the sense of creating an open environment for wellness, are ideas we were exploring in a variety of other places, but were able to bring to a much greater level of completion and focus here, given that we were able to design a project of this scale entirely from scratch.”