White, frosty, imposing (for numerous reasons) and giving rise to a ‘help, I’m drowning’ cry of despair: the hospital is one of the last public facilities to remain in its ivory tower, despite all efforts to add an air of cheer and optimism. Humanizing a medical institution isn’t easy, though; the hospital is, by definition, a place that you’d rather be ‘out of’ than ‘in.’

For those without a choice, there’s hope at the new Shirley Ryan AbilityLab in Chicago (formerly the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago), a haven for patients with highly complicated conditions, such as traumatic brain and spinal-cord injuries, stroke, limb loss and cancer. The focus of this 27-storey hospital is ‘patient user experience’, achieved through shared spaces used by patients, doctors and researchers simultaneously. The idea is that scientists who can ‘feel the patients’ pain’ will come up with speedier solutions for their problems.

The motivation behind everything that happens at the hospital is ‘patient outcomes’, said Megan Washburn, speaking on behalf of the organization. ‘Currently, 86 per cent of scientific discoveries – including potential cures – never make it out of the lab. The Shirley Ryan AbilityLab is the only hospital where doctors collaborate in the same space with scientists, both working to solve patient problems and to develop cures. Both doctors and scientists surround our patients, pursuing discovery and innovation by applying research real time.’

The patient UX is a total experience that reverberates from the moment of entering

She also mentioned the hospital’s wet lab, which ‘enables scientists to study living human cells’ with the use of biologics, pharmacology and stem-cell technology.

The hospital houses five ability labs for applied research and therapy: Arms + Hands, Think + Speak, Strength + Endurance, Legs + Walking, and Pediatric. The ambitious project involved four design studios – HDR, Gensler, Clive Wilkinson Architects and EGG Office – each tasked with a different aspect of the cutting-edge healthcare facility.

Clive Wilkinson was responsible for the design of the ‘patient user experience,’ from the building entrance to the lab interiors. His team looked at how a physical environment can play a powerful role in patients’ holistic treatment and help set them on the road to recovery. ‘The patient UX is a total experience that reverberates from the moment of entering,’ he added. ‘For instance, because so many patients enter on their backs, an early decision was to prioritize the design of ceilings.’ Washburn agrees that design and environment are important to the healing process.


This piece was originally featured on Frame 118. You can purchase a copy here.