The architects from Perkins+Will had already completed the massing studies and master plan for a new hospital at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore when Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg donated $120 million toward the $1.1 billion project. But the gift to his alma mater came with a condition: infuse the project with art. And not just “plop art,” but art integrated into the architecture. As a result, the curtain wall of the new Charlotte R. Bloomberg Children’s Center, named for the mayor’s mother, has incorporated shadow-box glass panels in hues derived from Monet’s wisteria reflected in the pond at Giverny.
The hospital complex comprises two towers, with the Children’s Center behind the one with a curved facade. An L-shaped tower for adult care is named for Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, founder and president of the United Arab Emirates, whose family made an undisclosed donation. A combination of bonds floated by the hospital plus state and federal dollars made up the rest of the funding. The complex is united at street level through a large canopy that provides flow, like an airport terminal with distinct yet visually unified drop-off areas. A public plaza by landscape architecture firm OLIN, the size of a football field, draws visitors into the complex.
Perkins+Will were already toying with the notion of color-laminated glazing for the children’s hospital. But the facade as artwork came about after the Bloomberg team brought in curator Nancy Rosen, who in turn recruited Spencer Finch, the artist whose glass mosaics in the muddy blues of the Hudson are installed at the High Line in New York. Though Finch’s media are glass and light, a 20-story, energy-efficient curtain wall fronting 1.6 million square feet was another matter. “Normally, I do exhibitions that are up for a while and then they come down, so the permanence was sort of terrifying,” the artist said.
The architects gave the Brooklyn-based artist a crash course in curtain-wall design, and in turn they visited his studio to understand his approach. Perkins+Will design principal Ralph Johnson said working with an artist differs from working with a color consultant. “There’s a body of personal work that an artist brings, whereas a colorist is just reacting to the building,” he said.
The shadow-box method was chosen partly because the use of an aluminum back panel provided the artist with an opaque surface within the grid as a kind of canvas for color application. The entire palette of Pittsburgh Paints enamels was at the artist’s disposal, which he whittled down to 26 colors based in part on the undertones of pond water and highlights of the sky.
The shadow box’s assemblage includes the double-paned glass plus the aluminum back. Of the five surfaces, three were to be painted: the back of the exterior pane, the front of the interior pane, and the aluminum back. Finch designed a frit pattern for the glass resembling water ripples. The frit on the two glass layers casts shadows on the colored aluminum that is set back about 6 inches. The artist created the pattern by hand then scanned it into Adobe Illustrator, where it was refined and then sent to the architects for transfer to AutoCAD.
Glass fabricator Viracon screened the frit pattern in ceramic onto the low-iron glass. The back of the exterior pane got a downturned ripple in a finish simulating acid etching, while the front of the interior pane took an upright ripple in a simulated sandblast finish. The wet ceramic was bonded to the glass at 1,200 degrees Celsius. A low-e coating went onto the back of the exterior pane, and the entire ensemble was sent off to Harmon Incorporated for assembly.
At Harmon, approximately 20,000 panes of glass were framed in aluminum and secured in a bed of silicon to absorb any seismic shock. Typical units were about 7 feet wide and ranged from 16 to 19 feet tall. Each unit holds five to seven pieces of glass.
Normally the factory handles about 100 different units at a time, but for this project the number jumped to 2,000. Coordination was key. “When working with custom silk-screen patterns, it’s important to understand how it’s going to lay out,” said Viracon’s Bob Carlson. “You may think that if you didn’t have it right, the misplaced pane might blend, but actually they jump out at you really quickly.” Quality control coming out of Harmon was tight. Of the 20,000 intricately patterned panes, only about 15 had to be adjusted on-site. The Charlotte R. Bloomberg Children’s Center opened officially on May 1.