The New WCH

WCH’s full name is spelled out under its now-iconic pink box, which houses a divisible meeting room and, at street level, acts as a welcoming beacon. Photography by Ben Rahn/A-Frame
WCH’s full name is spelled out under its now-iconic pink box, which houses a divisible meeting room and, at street level, acts as a welcoming beacon. Photography by Ben Rahn/A-Frame

Whether you’ re talking building, adding on or revamping, hospitals are big business for everyone concerned, and they certainly represent prestigious projects for the architects involved. They are also extremely complicated projects, dealing as they do with multiple technical needs, complex construction codes and requirements – not to mention a diverse clientele generally besieged by anxiety. Throw in the afterthought of a meaningful branding exercise, and the task starts to take on Gordian knot dimensions.

Our case in point is the redevelopment of Women’ s College Hospital (WCH). Founded in 1883 by Dr. Emily Stowe, the first Canadian female licensed to practice medicine in this country, WCH started life in a sprawling Victorian house in downtown Toronto, near its present location close by University Avenue. Its dual purpose: to give women a place where their health issues mattered; and to give women doctors– patriarchally restricted from regular hospital practice – a place where they could work.

Photography by Ben Rahn/A-Frame
Photography by Ben Rahn/A-Frame

One hundred-and-twenty-odd years later, the ambulatory care centre still maintains its “womandate,” but now leverages this through an affiliation with the University Health Network (UHN), a consortium of hospitals connected with students and researchers at the University of Toronto. Eight years ago, the hospital foundation began planning an expansion of its facilities, to accommodate a host of special female needs identified in a major commissioned study. Placed in charge of the task was architect Susan Black, principal and director of the international planning, design and consulting firm Perkins Eastman Black (in a joint venture with IBI Group). The Toronto native was particularly keen to take on the job. Not only had her two sons been born at WCH but, as a woman, she felt a vested interest in the female-focused hospital.

Natural elements, such as abundant plants and light, calming colours, and soft, feminine curves dominate the pavilion’s atrium. These features, combined with a variety of fashionable and comfortable seating styles in intimate groupings, make the space appear very hospitable but very unlike a hospital. Photography by Ben Rahn/A-Frame
Natural elements, such as abundant plants and light, calming colours, and soft, feminine curves dominate the pavilion’s atrium. These features, combined with a variety of fashionable and comfortable seating styles in intimate groupings, make the space appear very hospitable but very unlike a hospital. Photography by Ben Rahn/A-Frame

Gradually the process consumed her, causing Black to cut back on outside projects and volunteer her after-hours time designing furniture and hand-building art installations. Even after the summer 2016 grand opening, she still finds room on her visits to tweak an element here or there, like a painter daubing a few final brushstrokes on a completed canvas.

Black’ s main priorities for WCH were the construction of a new 10-storey clinical arm (eight storeys of which would be public-access places with the top two floors reserved for surgeries and mechanicals), a pavilion containing a grand atrium and new entryway, plus a conference centre that would form the educational heart of the hospital. Part of the latter’ s design includes a meeting-room space that has generated a lot of interest in the architectural community –a cantilevered, hot-pink box that floats over the complex’s south-west corner, the Women’ s College Hospital name wrapped in large letters around the glass wall underneath.

Exterior wayfinding should not be a problem for the newly redeveloped Women’s College Hospital. Outside the new entryway, huge polished steel letters signal the hospital and its focus (and are proving popular with stray groups of selfie-taking females). Photography by Ben Rahn/A-Frame
Exterior wayfinding should not be a problem for the newly redeveloped Women’s College Hospital. Outside the new entryway, huge polished steel letters signal the hospital and its focus (and are proving popular with stray groups of selfie-taking females). Photography by Ben Rahn/A-Frame

“It’s like a gift box, really,” Black says of the fuchsia-shaded glass structure. “Day or night, the outward aspect acts like a beacon.” It also has led to a unique branding campaign, whose ads feature women of various ages and backgrounds holding small pink replicas while explaining what WCH means to them.

To one side of this pink cube lies a 160-seat auditorium, its proscenium enlivened by a fluid wall sculpture entitled Chantilly Lace – an artful (and economical) melding of extruded wire, chicken wire and white blind fabric personally crafted by Black, the contractors and a handful of staff volunteers. The sculpture acts as a finial to the curvaceous auditorium enclosure, itself a continuum of the wavy balustrades and sinuous walls of the atrium, some of which are overlapped with dry-wall “fabric folds.”

Photography by Ben Rahn/A-Frame
Photography by Ben Rahn/A-Frame

These all-white curves, feminine by their very nature, more than balance out the building’ s hard right angles, lending a gracious, brightly welcoming atmosphere to the main foyer reception, meeting lounge and eating area. Sit there and look up, past the vertical rows of glassed-in clinic floors, for a view of the roof’ s underside, ribbon-stripped with even more translucent panels. “We built our own ‘ glass ceiling,’ ” jokes Black.

Here, as elsewhere throughout the complex, one must continually remind oneself that this is a hospital. The atrium around which the clinical floors revolve acts as a huge way-finding mechanism – one is always oriented with just a glance through the glass walls or peep over a balustrade. The airy serenity of the place (due in part to superb acoustical work) make it appear to be almost anything – a hotel, maybe, or an upscale store. Indeed, the main floor has already become a venue for people to walk in off the street, grab some sushi or a Thai salad, and lunch together in a relaxed atmosphere. Since the majority of the staff dresses in street clothes rather than lab coats, they fit right in.

Photography by Ben Rahn/A-Frame
Photography by Ben Rahn/A-Frame

But the redeveloped WCH does in fact host dozens of medical research and teaching areas, plus day and overnight surgery facilities. Each of its clinics is physically flexible enough to change program set-ups at will – concentrating on collaborative seniors care one day, perhaps addressing mental health issues in the immigrant community on another. And each floor contains its own kid’ s “play zone,” for parents who might otherwise miss an appointment for lack of child care. Throughout the clinical space, female and male doctors, nurses and volunteers deal with every aspect of the health experience, employing patient-centred care that treats clientele as real people and focuses on wellness instead of illness. Although women’ s health – every facet from pregnancy to breast cancer as well as newly emergent issues such as refugee care, transgender females and outreach to prevent sexual trafficking – predominates, many disciplines traverse the gender divide. One-third of Women’ s College Hospital patients are men.

Photography by Ben Rahn/A-Frame
Photography by Ben Rahn/A-Frame

For one reason or another, some of these people will make their way to the isolated meditation room off the main atrium. A hushed space with a soaring ceiling, one wall in back-lit plastic featuring a photo-mural of green Virginia creeper, the floor patterned with a contemplative labyrinth copied from France’ s Chartres Cathedral, it is an ideal place in which to sit and quietly reflect. The anxiety relief it provides may well be why it’ s a favourite spot of Susan Black, juggler extraordinaire of tricky architectural demands.


A seminar and tour of WCH led by Susan Black and the design team will be held on December 1st at IIDEXCanada 2016. Information can be found at www.iidexcanada.com
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