ARCHITECTURE: MUSC's Ashley River Tower 

Up Close and Impersonal

A streamlined glass tower has risen out of the murky sea of cubic buildings that have guided travelers across the Ashley River Bridge for decades.

From a distance, this first step in building MUSC's new hospital campus (five structures planned in all) refreshes the cityscape with a sail-like curve that echoes Charleston's history as a major port. But closer inspection reveals details that miss the boat.

The design firms — LS3P Associates Ltd. and the international firm NBBJ — were conscious of Charleston's historic character. While they nailed the design's overall shape and nautical theme, efforts to incorporate details of the Holy City's urban charm in the exterior and the atrium are less inspired.

The same slabs of blue stone found along the city's old sidewalks cover the building's entryways and atrium floors. At this vast scale, the blue hue and rough texture overwhelm an otherwise shiny palette of glass, aluminum, and stark white on columns that drive up to the ceiling alongside panels of off-white. Similarly misconceived is the red brick used to line parts of the exterior. It's meant to evoke a Georgian-style hominess, but instead stifles the streams of glass. Of course, the building's attempts to imbue Charleston's colonial character could have suffered a worse fate. But the roles of brick and stone in the detailing of the Ashley River Tower don't embrace its traditional context as much as water down its contemporary potential.

Weaving in historical artifacts is an underestimated art. When it comes to new architecture, a figurative spin is often a better way to celebrate the context of a building. New York architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien did this by drawing from traditional Indian wall screens for their corporate campus (Tata Consulting Services), which is under construction in Mumbai.

Instead of mimicking the ornately flourished wood screens of old, they invented exaggerated renditions with sandstone. The result is an intrinsic relationship between past and present. But looking at the Ashley River Tower, these historic materials are used as if they were wallpaper.

New hospitals have to balance showcasing their technological prowess and keeping the environment at a human level for patients and family members needing comfort. As hospitals go, MUSC's nearly $400-million building has some serene attributes.

Greg Soyka, executive project manager at LS3P, says his design team avoided the sterile stigma of hospitals by using a material most of us associate with home and comfort — wood. It was placed on side panels in areas like nurse stations and the cafeteria. Soyka also notes that patient rooms are painted a range of bright colors, unlike the whites seen in other hospitals.

NBBJ, an award-winning firm acclaimed for its designs of medical centers across the United States, is familiar with studies that show patients heal faster when they have access to vegetation, natural light, and natural materials. To this end, Ashley River Tower boasts copious light streaming into the waiting areas and patient rooms thanks to the creation of open corridors and wide window views of the river.

Even so, little is noteworthy about the experience of this building's interior — waiting rooms feel like waiting rooms, hallways like hallways. But to be fair, how revolutionary should we expect hospital design to be? MUSC plans to build four more buildings using similar materials. This is an opportunity to create a campus with its own new context, possibly emboldening the ways Charleston's culture is deciphered and encouraging the incorporation of organic and high-tech materials.

As the first tall glass curtain wall to be built in Charleston, the Ashley River Tower suggests that the city may finally be ready for architecture of our time.


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