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A World Outside
Landscape architects design a detailed roof garden, providing a natural escape for patients and families at the St. Louis Children's Hospital.
By Heather Hammatt, ASLA

At the end of a quiet, carpeted hall on the eighth floor of the Saint Louis Children's Hospital, an electronic door opens into a green oasis in the form of a rooftop garden dedicated to healing mind and body through connections with nature. "In contrast to the interior of the hospital, which tends to be sterile and monotonous, you feel as if something is coming to life around you [in the garden]," says Craig Russell, ASLA, project manager for EDAW in Fort Collins, Colorado.

Children seem out of place in the serious, sterile, and regimented environment found in most hospitals. In a hospital children have little freedom and often associate their surroundings with frightening procedures, pain, and a feeling of powerlessness. They have very little control over the mysterious examinations and treatments they are experiencing. "A healing garden is a real therapy, an antidote to the stress that is unavoidable in the health care environment. A garden literally provides a sense of peace and freedom and an opportunity for restoration for both child and family," says Robin Moore, professor of landscape architecture at North Carolina State University and contributing author for Healing Gardens, by Clare Cooper Marcus and Marni Barnes (1999, John Wiley and Sons).

The design for the approximately 7,500-square-foot roof garden at the St. Louis Children's Hospital, spearheaded by Herb Schaal, FASLA, a principal with EDAW, Fort Collins, in collaboration with project architect Mackey Mitchell Associates of St. Louis, Missouri, recently won an honor award from the Colorado chapter of ASLA. The garden does not embrace any particular style or genre of garden design or illustrate a particular metaphorical reference to medical history. But every nook and cranny is carefully detailed with something to discover, creating experiences that involve visitors by reaching out to all their senses. Patients, families, and visitors are offered a place to face sickness in a beautiful outdoor setting, a place where they can find new strength for what lies ahead.

"Garden settings are important for children because they live through their senses," writes Moore. Employing a variety of sensory stimulants, the Olson Family Garden design team created a space alive with color, sound, and texture in sharp contrast with its quiet, sterile hospital environment. From the moment visitors step through the electronic door onto the soft, recycled rubber surface of the garden's paths, the feeling of transitioning to another world is acute. "[The springy texture] is like stepping out onto the beach," says Russell.

Arguably the most popular interactive element is the first thing you see as you walk through the door—a globe of granite that "floats" on a film of water in a curved basin. Kids and adults alike can spin the ball in its water-filled cradle. "It is one of the most impressive hands-on things that gets the kids going," says Gary Wangler, a certified horticulturist on staff with the hospital. Being able to control the motion of the ball helps children feel they are in control, according to Helen Orem, a consultant specializing in healing environments and artist in residence with the Lombardi Cancer Center at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. "It gives them an important sense of empowerment, when they have lost so much control in other areas of their lives," says Orem, who visited the Olson garden last year.

Water elements play a prominent role in the design of the garden. "The water elements are well placed, so that right from the beginning you are involved. The ambient sound of water was immediate," says Orem. Several small fountains add to the more contemplative areas of the garden. Falling from its source in an accessible goldfish pond, a shallow, gurgling stream flows through the center of the garden, culminating with a waterfall drop into an obliging pool.

In addition to its noise value, the stream system provides the added attractions of live fish and an adventurous stepping-stone path over the pool at the base of the waterfall. Accessible from several locations, the stream and various fountains entice children to submerge hands and feet in exploration of their mysterious depths. The water used in the garden is not recirculated, allowing children with immune deficiencies to participate without fear of infection. "You feel free to do everything, to put your fingers in the water, to touch the sculptures. Children are encouraged to participate," says Orem.

Accessibility, both mental and physical, is another underlying theme of the design for the Olson Family Garden. It was important to consider that some of the garden's visitors would need wheelchairs, crutches, or other transportation aids to navigate its paths. A smooth, flat surface without any tripping hazards was an important part of the design's infrastructure. Wood decking was used in addition to the recycled rubber surfacing. Walking on wood adds another sound to the garden's repertoire, and the tactile change from rubber to wood adds interest and helps to delineate special areas of the garden.

One such area exists under what Schaal refers to as the outlook and inlook arbor, a shade structure that resembles abstract flower petals. The upward-arching "sunbrella" canvas blades are supported on a steel frame providing both shade for garden visitors and a visual connection to people on the ground, eight stories below. The outlook portion of the arbor shades a viewing deck, complete with seating and telescopes overlooking Forest Park, 1,300 acres of nature, nestled in the heart of St. Louis. Being able to look out over this view of the city is reassuring for children confined to the hospital, according to Orem.

The inlook arbor overlooks the garden, focusing on a central lawn area. The lawn provides a multipurpose open space and a green focal point for the garden. Schaal, with his signature hands-on, personal touch, added crocus bulbs planted in smiley faces to the lawn during a site visit to the completed garden, creating an element of springtime surprise for garden visitors.

Serpentine limestone seat walls wind throughout the garden, creating freestanding planters and lining garden paths. "We were trying to create a contrast to the hard-edged, geometric interior of the hospital, with curves and sinuous lines," says Russell. A calendar of dates is carved into the limestone seats, with an invitation for children to find their birthdays and mark them with a favorite flower picked from the garden.

Answers, a local art engraving company, carved stepping-stones with animal imprints, and lifelike bronze animal sculptures designed by Stephen Maxon of Max-Cast Foundry in Kalona, Iowa, peek out from behind rocks and under shrubbery, waiting to be discovered, touched, and remembered.

A celestial plaza occupies the northwest corner of the garden, enclosed in a turf amphitheater and buffered from the northwestern winds by a freestanding screen wall. The plaza is inlaid with images of the solar system and hosts an interactive sundial, where children participate by standing on the marked spot that represents the correct angle of repose and watching their shadows tell time. Schaal and fellow members of the design team developed schematic idea guidelines for the artwork and then let the artists interpret at will within the preset parameters.

The screen wall that protects the plaza gathering space is designed to incorporate three, four-foot-diameter "moon windows," or cubbies placed within the wall. The cubbies are large enough to provide intimate seating, with an impressive glassed-in view of the city beyond. Wangler describes an early morning scene of father and child sharing a quiet moment, protected from a drizzling rain within one of the moon windows, yet still able to enjoy views of the garden and the city beyond.

Perimeter fencing and walls were an important design factor, considering the site's eight-story height. Ten-foot-high, vertical wire fabric creates a secure but transparent border, while strategically placed Arborvitae minimize the visual effects of surrounding buildings and help define the view to the city beyond.

Capturing aspects of seasonal change and maximizing the use of bright, engaging colors and fragrant plants, the design team made the most of their microcosm. Begonias, salvias, and impatiens fill the raised planters with mounds of fuchsia, scarlet, orange, and yellow blossoms. Birch trees add shade and texture. A weeping yaupon sports a sheen of bright red berries on its drooping stems. "We used plants with interesting characteristics and growth habits, colors, smells, textures, to attract kids' attention and give a year-round effect," says Russell.

The design also uses screen plantings to establish a contemplative area off to one side of the garden, space for children and parents to find solitude or to enjoy privacy as a family. Embraced by lush vegetation, the quiet space nestles against the west-facing wall of the hospital. Benches and low limestone seat walls provide secluded seating areas, while the splashing spray of a small fountain designed by local artist Gary Passanisse masks the sounds of the rest of the garden inhabitants and the surrounding environment.

The focus of the garden is to totally engage the people experiencing it, not to provide just another "isn't that pretty" experience, says Orem. In the garden, parents and children can spend time together away from the stress of the hospital ward. The combination of private spaces, lush planting, and the sound of moving water provides a sense of refuge, which supports the restorative process. The garden's focus is children. The scale creates a child-sized world that doesn't compromise the scale of the overall garden, according to Orem.

The St. Louis Children's Hospital helps to ensure the success of its healing garden by maintaining a certified horticulturist on staff. "[Wangler] is a great maintenance curator. He puts his heart into his work," says Russell. Under Wangler's watchful and dedicated eye, the garden achieves a higher standard than institutional garden spaces that are left to more sporadic maintenance.

In addition, Wangler goes a step beyond mere maintenance, involving children and visitors in the care of the garden. There is no formal horticulture therapy program at the Olson garden. But, informally, Wangler invites children and visitors to help him maintain the healing garden, planting when the bedding plants need replacement, weeding, and undertaking less laborious jobs, such as feeding the fish, as a form of spontaneous therapeutic activity.

Coming to the hospital by way of the Missouri Botanical Garden and the St. Louis Zoo, Wangler has also been instrumental in developing a schedule of educational programs for the garden and its participants, bringing in master gardeners, scientists, and floral experts for a monthly program series. "The garden is not just a toy, or something to entertain the kids, but something they can take away educationally, to keep their minds off what is going on inside the building itself," says Wangler.

Located eight stories off the ground on an existing structure, the site offered many design and construction challenges. The approximately 74-foot by 103-foot roof deck gets full sun and reflected heat from the south-facing wall of the eighth and ninth floors, which helps to warm the garden throughout the winter months. During the hot and humid summer months, deciduous trees planted throughout the space provide much-needed shade.

All of the garden's structural elements are cantilevered with large slabs of concrete. "Nothing is attached to the roof. Everything floats on the surface and maintains itself for wind loads by its own weight," says Schaal. The garden was designed this way to keep from affecting the existing roof structure. By keeping the original structure intact, the design team avoided potential liability issues related to altering the existing building.

"The entire subsurface of the garden is permeable," says Schaal. Water drains through to the roof deck, which is impermeable. Once there, a layer of drainage mat helps move the water horizontally to the existing roof drains.

"The soil mix was a 100-percent sand mixture, except for the top 12 inches, which was a mixture of sand and peat moss," he says. The weight of the sand helped to hold the trees in place. However, they were also guy-wired to the walls where possible, according to Schaal. All trees and other construction materials were hauled up to the site via crane, limiting the designers' palette in terms of size and weight.

The design of the Olson Family Garden incorporates technical requirements, accessibility concerns, critical dimensions, and the need for public and private spaces. "But the real success of the design is in its aesthetics-the proportion and variety of spaces, the composition of color and texture, and that it is fundamentally a garden of living plants. It seems rich, happy, and healthy. It just feels good to be in it," says Schaal.

Landscape architects: EDAW, Ft. Collins, Colorado: Herb Schaal, FASLA, principal; Craig Russell, Associate ASLA, project manager; Joe McGrane, landscape architect/designer. Spaid Associates, St. Louis, Missouri: Ted Spaid, ASLA, principal.

General contractor: McGrath & Associates, St. Louis, Missouri: Scott Olson, project engineer and project manager.

Architect: Mackey Mitchell Associates, St. Louis, Missouri, Dick Kirschner, principal. Health care environment consultant: Orem Associates, Chevy Chase, Maryland, Helen Orem.

Client: St. Louis Children's Hospital, St. Louis, Missouri: Gary Wangler, horticulturist supervisor; Mark Barkenbush, director, facility services; Hal Morse, chaplain and design committee member.

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