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A Healing Place

A local architecture critic assesses the 750,000 square feet of new and renovated space recently completed as part of DHMC's Project for Progress expansion. The complex works aesthetically, he concludes. And, more to the point for a hospital, functionally and spiritually, too.

By Donald Maurice Kreis

Television producers often locate soap operas in hospitals for a reason: hospitals are where so many of life's most significant moments occur. Indeed, if the Upper Valley were the setting for a soap opera, the drama would surely revolve around Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center—and not just because it's the only tertiary-care facility in the region, but because it's central to the area's economic and community life, too. Many of the dramas in my own life, for example, have played out within the walls of DHMC. [For insight into the author's favorite areas at DHMC, see the video.]

In a sense, I've been married to the place since 1997, as the spouse of a Dartmouth Medical School graduate who recently completed her anesthesiology residency at DHMC. In addition, both of our children were born at DHMC—in 2001 and 2006. And our elder child has cystic fibrosis, so we make more frequent visits to the place than even the average parents of youngsters do.

Accordingly, I bring to this assessment of a recent major expansion of DHMC the objective eye of an architecture critic, as well as the very subjective heart of a father who has bequeathed a chronic condition like cystic fibrosis to his beautiful little girl. I can hardly be dispassionate about the place that keeps her alive and thriving, waiting for a cure. I wonder if the architecture critics who win Pulitzer Prizes, like Blair Kamin of the Chicago Tribune or Robert Campbell of the Boston Globe, try to write about buildings within which they have cried in front of strangers.

Ihave too much insider information about how DHMC really works, as well as too many joyful—and tearful—memories associated with the building, to regard it purely as a mass of steel, drywall, and other materials arranged according to some architects' professional judgment. During the many hours I've spent in its inpatient rooms, doctors' offices, and waiting areas, I've come to appreciate the complicated but beneficent presence that the Medical Center has

The sweeping embrace of glass-topped canopies marks the entrances on DHMC's new eastern facade. This view shows the Cancer Center entrance and, to the right, the windows of the East Mall Dining Pavilion.

been ever since its opening in 1991. And I've come to understand what a good building can do for the people who need it. [For more about the author's background, see the video.]

Another Pulitzer-winner, the late Allan Temko of the San Francisco Chronicle, once praised the design of a health-care facility in his city as architecture that was both "unobtrusive to the casual visitor" and "part of the healing process." For a cystic-fibrosis family, "the healing process" typically involves regular inpatient stays. So Temko, who died in January 2006, probably would not have minded a review written on a laptop in the hospital room of the author's daughter while she received a course of intravenous antibiotics.

Indeed, from this perspective, the words Temko applied in San Francisco seem just right in assessing DHMC's $220-million expansion, dubbed Project for

Progress. The additions—accomplished between 2002 and 2006—are unobtrusive but definitely part of the healing that happens here.

Of course nobody can spend $220 million to erect 467,000 square feet of new buildings, to renovate 281,000 square feet of existing space, and to create a parking garage with 540 spaces and do so invisibly. Project for Progress is only unobtrusive in comparison to the current fashion for eye-popping design. For example, Thom Mayne, whose 2005 Pritzker Prize makes him the architectural equivalent of a Nobel laureate, has proposed a new Alaska state capitol that resembles a giant egg.

No eggs were laid at DHMC, however. The Boston firm that designed DHMC's original Lebanon complex, Shepley Bulfinch Richardson & Abbott, was retained anew for Project for Progress. The firm is well stocked with designers

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Kreis lives in Grantham, N.H. A former journalist, he is now an attorney who moonlights as an architecture critic for the local daily newspaper, the Valley News, and other publications. He also chairs the Patient-Family Advisory and Advocacy Council of DHMC's Cystic Fibrosis Center. Kreis's wife is Dr. Jennifer Keller, a 2001 graduate of Dartmouth Medical School as well as an alumna of the DHMC anesthesiology residency program. [For more about the author's background, see the video.]

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