Jul 24, 2014
THEME: Wellness

A Prescription for Art: Healing at the new Sky Tower at University Hospital

A hospital is often not perceived as a place to view world-class art, but in San Antonio this is changing. The city often called ‘the gateway to Latin America’ has recently used a county hospital expansion to showcase their commitment to the arts. In doing so, they have not only reinforced their reputation as a major cultural center of the American Southwest, they’ve also expanded on a growing body of research that says art has a role to play in healing.

University Health System’s Design Enhancement and Public Art program is the largest public art program in San Antonio, with a budget of approximately $6 million across two campuses. The original artwork in their collection is from over 275 artists representing eight countries. In total, there are more than 1,200 pieces of art in the new Sky Tower at University Hospital. Virtually all works are in public areas of the hospital and the surrounding grounds, allowing all the opportunity to experience this treasure trove. 

An exterior shot of the new facility, which doubles as a repository for world-class art

But if you do find yourself a patient in need of care, art will permeate your experience from arrival to discharge. Simply put, art impacts how we experience a space. It can act in subtle or bold ways. It can be especially powerful in a healthcare environment, for staff, patients, and visitors. With a museum-like quality, one far less institutional than typical hospitals, University Hospital provides the San Antonio community with free access to world-class art. Most importantly, the art provides a positive distraction for staff and patients. Studies have shown that patients with views of art or nature have reduced pain and anxiety, fewer complications, fewer requests for medication, and shorter hospital stays. The end result is an inspiring environment with the utmost focus on healing.

Foxglove, right, by artist Ed Carpenter

Foxglove by Portland, Oregon artist Ed Carpenter is an abstraction of the foxglove flower, the botanical term for which is “digitalis”, once a common heart medicine derived from the plant. The artist suspended a wire net dotted with dichroic glass medallions from three stories above the hospital’s main lobby.

Inside Foxglove by artist Ed Carpenter


Hippocrates, on the far back wall, by Martin Donlin

Hippocrates by Martin Donlin of East Sussex, England, is a collection of hand-painted enameled glass discs. They serve as pictograms, the images of which convey a message from Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine: “Wherever the art of medicine is loved, there is also a love of humanity.”

A detail of reflective Hippocrates by Martin Donlin

World-renowned Mexican artist Sebastáin designed Flower of Hope as a geometric representation of the yellow esperanza flower. In his native Spanish, “esperanza” means “hope”, a crucial component of the healing and recovery process.

Flower of Hope

 The flower motif continues with local artist Riley Robinson’s design and installation of over 4000 steel bluebonnets with thermoset polymer and hand-painted highlights resembling a colorful field that one would see in the Texas landscape.

Artist Riley Robinson’s flower assemblage, right

 The uplifting and cheerful familiarity of bluebonnets aims to provide a distraction and respite for patients and staff alike.

A close-up of Riley Robinson’s flower installation


The Pedestrian Experience by Leticia Huerta

The Pedestrian Experience by Leticia Huerta includes several installations throughout the UHS campus. Each piece includes plants with healing properties such as aloe, rosemary, and mint. As visitors and staff walk to and from the hospital, the art serves as a reminder of nature’s ability to heal.

The Pedestrian Experience by Leticia Huerta


You Activate this Space by Ansen Seale, from the outside

Local artist Ansen Seale focused on UHS staff with his installation You Activate this Space. In this piece, 42 glass panels backlit with LEDs change color as the staff moves across the bridge, to and from work, serving as an uplifting reminder of the importance of their work. An audio component also serves to calm and relax. Not only does the physical movement of staff members activate the art, but the art then becomes a metaphor for the staff activating the hospital and its mission.

You Activate this Space by Ansen Seale, inside

Designers have looked to evidence-based design to support why we shape space as we do and go beyond the subjectivity of aesthetic decisions, including how we integrate art.  As more healthcare facilities recognize the role art has to play in evidence-based design, designers will need to lead the way by integrating art more and more into the spaces they shape.

This post was written with Brita Pearson.

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