Surgical Strike

Surgical Strike

The facade of the new center faces 16th Street in Santa Monica.
Tom Bonner

The latest addition to UCLA’s aggressive off-campus healthcare expansion in Santa Monica is the UCLA Outpatient Surgery and Oncology Center: a crisp concrete block by Michael W. Folonis Architects. Humanely scaled, full of natural light, and forward-looking in every way, this exemplary facility contrasts sharply with the UCLA Santa Monica Medical Center, Robert A. M. Stern’s turgid pastiche of red-brick Romanesque across 16th Street.

“It was a miracle we got this project, which is far and away the most ambitious we’ve done to date,” said Folonis. “I asked the developer, Randy Miller, why he picked us and he said, ‘I thought architects ought to be able to design all kinds of buildings.’” Miller is a third-generation contractor with degrees in structural engineering and construction management. He set up the Nautilus Group to commission intelligent, architecturally distinguished buildings. LA needs more like him.

The three-story block is set back from the street behind a forecourt landscaped by Pamela Burton & Company. Two wings flank a glazed atrium, and the upper stories are cantilevered forward and shaded by horizontal baffles from the westerly sun. The atrium opens to a public terrace and serves as a heat chimney to vent hot air, while the polished concrete provides thermal mass, eliminating the need for heating or air-conditioning.

Left to right: The suspended steel staircase fills the atrium; break space and a kitchen receive natural light; another view of the light-filled atrium and stair.

As in a theater, patients see only half the building; the “backstage” service and mechanical areas flow easily out of the public spaces but are restricted to doctors and staff. To the left, massive vaults house two linear accelerators for the diagnosis and treatment of cancer. A self-supporting steel staircase provides direct access to the eight operating theaters, to prep and recovery areas on the second floor, and to clinics and offices on the third.

“For me, the prospect of surgery is scary,” said Folonis, “so we wanted to make the place as friendly as possible for patients, doctors, and staff.” Nearly all the workspaces are naturally lit (often through translucent glass to assure privacy) and the second-floor ceilings are angled to draw in light from the street facade. Folonis softened the raw concrete—board-marked at ground level, and smooth above—with bamboo wall paneling, floors, and stair treads. Color is sparingly used, and pale blue was adopted after the head nurse vetoed yellow because it would give patients a jaundiced look. Working within a tight budget, Folonis designed custom benches and economized rest room tiles in order to specify high-quality waiting-room furniture from Vitra and Herman Miller.

Windows in the concrete facade (left). The building glows in the evening (right).

The 45,000-square-foot building came in at $23 million, and UCLA installed $22 million worth of equipment. The fully equipped garage cost two-thirds that of conventional underground parking—by halving the footprint, reducing ceiling heights, and eliminating elevators and ventilation. It is likely to be the first such facility to achieve a Gold LEED rating. Perhaps the most innovative feature is the fully automated parking system, which Miller helped develop with two firms in Minnesota. Visitors drive down a ramp from the street and leave their cars in one of six transfer stations. Each car is scanned and then lowered by crane to one of six subterranean bays; a car can be retrieved and be ready to drive away in as little as two minutes.

The building was privately developed for lease to UCLA, quickly and at a competitive price. Its neighbor, by Stern, took the university seven years to build and overran its cost estimates. The moral? UCLA should get out of the development business and select firms with the taste and skill to do a better job.