When the John R. Oishei Children’s Hospital was first completed, we covered a lot of the exterior work, but missed out on covering some of the more interesting interior projects related to the development. One in particular was handled by Joy Kuebler Landscape Architect – the Winter Garden, located on the 5th floor.
I asked Joy to give me a tour of the Winter Garden, and she agreed. So earlier today, we met up at the hospital to talk about the inspirational project.
Interestingly enough, I had only seen a couple of small photos of the project previously, and didn’t know exactly what to expect. Joy told me that the project was both exhilarating and daunting. It as exhilarating because she and her chief designer for the project, Daniel Seiders, were working with something that they felt could really impact the lives of so many people at the hospital. The daunting side of the project was all of the regulations that they had to adhere to in order to pull it off. After all, we’re not talking about a garden scape inside of a hotel, we’re talking about one that is located inside a building that houses a lot of sick children.
Within moments of stepping inside the Winter Garden, a surprise visitor walked in. It was a little girl with two family members. She must have been around six years old, and her mussed hair signaled that she had probably been undergoing chemo. But when she walked through the door, into the Winter Garden, her face lit up and she returned to being a carefree little girl again, if even for a brief moment. Joy was talking as I observed the girl interact with the space, and honestly, I couldn’t concentrate on anything other than what the child was up to. To me, the sick girl in the uplifting surroundings was the story – it was the reason that I had come to see the space. I even felt teary eyed as I watched her flit from one side of the room to the other, jumping up on the furniture (rocks) and stretching her hands out to the wallpaper (waterfall). The room had suddenly transformed into a wooded forest where one might expect creatures from Where The Wild Things Are to appear.
Joy and I ended up talking to the girl’s mother who told us that her favorite thing to do at the hospital was to visit the Winter Garden and dig in the dirt. Since she’s not allowed outside of the building, this was the closest thing that she could get to being outdoors [I could feel the tears welling again]. I couldn’t take my eyes off the girl, and just wanted to give her a hug and tell her that everything would be OK. A few moments later, they were all gone, waiving as they went and thanking Joy for her incredible work.
Once we were alone, Joy began to explain a few of the principles behind the Winter Garden. She told me that the giant metal trees actually hung from the ceiling because of an “earthquake code” that they had to comply with. Every element within the space was made with materials that are non-porous, so that they can be bleached and hosed down (the floor is water resistant). There is a child-height sink in the middle of the Winter Garden where kids can wash their hands. Colorful butterflies are hidden among the pothos and other shade plants, for children to find. All of the built-in seating is rounded, so that wheelchairs can easily navigate the space. Every minute element was carefully thought through, so that children could interact with all of the design elements. Every time the landscape architects were faced with a constraint, they managed to overcome it, despite the constant worry of going over the budget.
As Joy described the experiential surroundings, a couple of nurses walked in from Buffalo General Medical Center, across the street. They said that a couple of times a week they take some time during their lunch breaks to spend a few minutes in the Winter Garden. Now, that’s a pretty amazing testimony considering that it’s not even winter. That’s when it occurred to me that the space was not simply for sick children, it’s also for parents who are trying to deal with the pressures, and employees who must also have a hard time coping with the sadness that comes hand-in-hand with working closely with children who are not well.
Joy told me that she had approached other hospitals in the past, in hopes that they would understand the boundless benefits of a Winter Garden. The John R. Oishei Children’s Hospital was the first one that truly understood just how important the feature would be. I understand that there is no ‘patient care’ on the fifth floor, meaning that it is truly a form of escapism for people.
As a side note, I would like pass along a note for the operations team at the hospital. The soundscape for the Winter Garden was not turned on today. Nor was it turned on the last time that the little girl and her family paid a visit. Apparently the soundscape is the final touch that ties everything together – bird’s chirping, the sound of the wind, etc. I would think that with so much time, thought, energy, and funding that went into the Winter Garden, this important element would not be forgotten. According to Joy, it’s simply a matter of turning the sound on in the morning. Actually, I’m not sure why there would even be a need to turn it off. Once I learned that there was a sound component to the interactive landscape, I felt that there was definitely something missing with the experience. Hopefully someone can figure out how to get the sound working again?