Interiors feature bright colors and abundant white surfaces on the floors, walls, and ceilings that help distribute ample daylight throughout.
“Everything here is about optimism. This project, with sophisticated rehab programming, shows that you can design with bold color in healthcare and that can be successful. The branding is well-integrated into the design, and it’s not an afterthought.” —Jury
A cutting-edge rehabilitation hospital in the Streeterville neighborhood of downtown Chicago, the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab delivers sophisticated care in a highly creative setting.
Designed by HDR | Gensler in association with Clive Wilkinson Architects, the 27-story, 1.2 million-square-foot tower meets complex programmatic needs. The team was assembled for its interrelated skills, leveraging HDR’s healthcare know-how, Gensler’s high-rise and workplace expertise, and Wilkinson’s user experience savvy. Los Angeles–based EGG Office joined the design team for the interior surfaces and graphic identity. Previously known as the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, the organization wanted its new building to facilitate translational medicine, a practice in which professionals discover and apply research findings in real time.
Upon arrival, the public is directed to the 10th-floor sky lobby, which includes two exterior roof gardens, a chapel, a conference center, and the executive office suite. Curved edges and surfaces create what Wilkinson calls “frictionless” spaces.
“The client had a clear vision of the building’s elements,” says Anne Gibson, a Gensler design director. “It’s a Venn diagram of science, patients, and care.” This concept is most readily apparent in the five AbilityLabs, each centrally located on separate floors and targeting specific therapies: thinking and talking, walking, arms and hands, strength and endurance, and pediatrics.
“Since the labs were such a novel concept, we could not find furnishings in the marketplace and therefore custom-designed almost all the furniture within [them],” Wilkinson explains. “Screening was carefully conceived to maintain openness while providing some privacy.” The approach was so revolutionary that Wilkinson received patents for a few of the unique components.
White is the dominant interior color, but bold, mostly orange, graphics are deployed in the public areas, including the lobby, sky lobby, covered roof gardens, and AbilityLabs. “The designs by Wilkinson and EGG are specific to each lab,” notes Tom Trenolone, HDR design principal and creative director.
“The building supports patients with challenges,” Gibson says. “It’s about the ease of finding things. Spaces are wider, more open.” Even hallways enable multiple uses because they are wider than the norm. “Eight feet is the standard width in hallways,” Trenolone remarks, “but it’s the minimum at AbilityLab,” where they expand up to 13 feet. “We wanted to make them spaces, not hallways,” Gibson says. “They are places where staff and patients can do therapy, have meetings, etcetera.
“Aspects of the building needed to reflect the challenges of the real world,” Gibson continues. “The Activities of Daily Living Studio is set up like a traditional Chicago apartment—a tiny bathroom with cabinets below the sink and a kitchen with upper cabinets. There are all these challenges. The AbilityLab is about preparing patients for the real world.”
Individual patient rooms are clean and spare with warm light-colored wood built-ins, but the overall palette is intentionally neutral. “Patients are here for weeks or months at a time,” Gibson explains. “It’s about populating the space with their own things—plants, photos, and personal effects.”
“The building has taut lines, but [the] AbilityLab is about a disruption in life,” Trenolone says. This idea is represented across the 26-story glazed exterior by the folded planes that mark the AbilityLab locations on the north elevation. More important, the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab raises the stakes for healthcare design. Gibson adds, “It doesn’t look like a hospital.”