Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center: West Harrison

The design team studied both residential and hospitality environments in developing the material palette, which includes blonde terrazzo floors, blue and brown upholstered furnishings, and wood paneling. Photography by Ron Blunt

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When architects and designers are called to remedy the emotional challenges that cancer centers present, they can sometimes go overboard, using colors and spatial gimmicks that can feel cluttered, forced, and perhaps even condescending. The new Memorial Sloan Kettering (MSK) Cancer Center: West Harrison designed by EwingCole has a palette that, instead, suggests calm, cool dignity, and a design that instills informal relaxation, focus, and welcome distraction when needed.

The building itself in West Harrison, New York, just east of White Plains, was built in the 1950s as an office, and most recently had been used by Verizon. But it had become dated, dark, and depressing. In a remarkable transformation, the architects re-clad the bunker-like, “tin can” structure’s once-forbidding exterior with a textured, rectilinear composition of thin gray travertine panels and large glass curtain walls.

Around this, EwingCole integrated a series of new landscapes—including layered and manicured upper and lower gardens and a rolling wetland meadow designed by John Meyer Consulting Group—that envelop the building and feel like outdoor rooms, providing respite for both viewing and visiting. A series of travertine and planted tensile stainless steel mesh screens along the gardens provide privacy and carve out a series of intimate niches.

Inside, this sophisticated palette seamlessly continues, with blonde terrazzo floors and calming tones of blue and gray, supplemented with warm rift white oak and cool metals. To hone the sense of serene welcome, the firm studied the design of spas, boutique hotels, and residences. “We wanted to make sure patients felt like they were cared for, like they were family,” says EwingCole Principal Mary Frazier.  

Waiting in different ways

“It wasn’t about overpowering the senses with stimulation,” says EwingCole Director of Design Saul Jabbawy, who adds that the minimal design also helps focus attention on views of the natural environment outside.

The first significant interior space that patients encounter, the Garden Room, is an addition along the north end of the building. The long, extended lobby seemingly opens to the outdoors through large glass windows, and is illuminated and enlivened through a series of skylights and changes in ceiling height. Along its length, varying seating arrangements and programmed spaces—including a salon, library, and cafe—provide visitors with a number of waiting options. Patients feel more like they’re at home, or in a hospitality interior, rather than stuck in a waiting room.

“People like to wait in different ways,” Frazier says. Upon checking in, patients are given GPS location tags, so they can wander where they like while still being monitored.

The welcome desk is backed by a 10-foot-by-35-foot multi-layered, etched glass image of a geologic map of the region, which joins the area’s sleek furniture, smart chandeliers and pendants by Brooklyn-based artist Lindsey Adelman, large-scale art, and indoor plantings as effective design punctuation marks. All were chosen, Frazier says, not just for their beauty but because they were “not something you would typically see in a healthcare facility.”

Throughout the building, the firm has implemented small courtyards, varied ceiling heights, skylights, and a double-height stair to bring light and depth into the varied, flexible spaces. Sound absorbing materials and the lack of a public address system help keep the interior especially quiet, and medical equipment is screened or hidden from view to minimize the space’s institutional feel.

“No design detail was overlooked in crafting a transformational patient environment that supports the unique physical and emotional needs of cancer patients and caregivers, nurturing them inside and out,” says Suzen Heeley, executive director, design and construction for Memorial Sloan Kettering.

Providing patients with options

When they receive chemotherapy treatment, patients have the option of using their own rooms that have windows with views of the scenery outside and are equipped with technology allowing patients to Skype with friends and family, order food, control the lighting or temperature, or watch movies. Patients can also stay in one of the “living rooms,” where they can socialize with others, or choose to walk through the building or even the gardens.

“We want the patient to feel that they are in control of their lives, not trapped,” says Richard Choy, chief architect for Memorial Sloan Kettering.

Patients have responded positively to the facility’s design, as have the clients. This is the third major project that EwingCole has completed for MSK. Choy is especially pleased at how comfortable people feel here, and how it “doesn’t look like a hospital,” he says. “[The architects] took a building that was abandoned and brought it back to health.”

2015 Healthcare Environment Awards
Ambulatory Care Winner
Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center: West Harrison

Architect: EwingCole
Client: Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center
Where: Harrison, New York
What: 114,500 total square feet on two floors plus a basement
Cost/sf: Withheld at client’s request