In conversation, architects generally have a hearty appetite for likening buildings to human anatomy – even structures without the conveniently evident symbolism that a central cardiac clinic embodies. Buildings are the organs of a city, and parks often act as its lungs. Within the city, structures are routinely and surgically transplanted from location to location. Vibrant cities are healthy, but those in decline are fibrous tumors. Corridors are dubbed spines instead of hallways. Facades are called skins or exterior membranes. And, of course, buildings could not stand without their structural skeletons.

One new campus building, the University Cardiovascular Center, which is slated to open this summer, refuses to acknowledge its obvious metaphor.

The symbolism is clearly not lost on those involved with the project. In its press release about the building, the University Health System described the clinical care facility as rising from the “heart” of the University’s medical campus and connected to other hospital buildings “via artery-like passages.” During construction, more beds were added to the plan to meet the “surging” demand of patients combating cardiovascular disease. The architects Shepley Bulfinch Richardson and Abbott subtly fuel the metaphor by locating the clinic’s Healing Garden in the heart of the building. Yet these symbolic hints were found only through careful searching. They’re relatively subtle compared to other University buildings, which rush to proclaim their clever architectural symbolism.

The Big House is hailed as a monument to tradition. Weill Hall is a triumphant gateway to campus. The new School of Public Health building is a “crossroads” and a “tower.” The new Business School campus will be state-of-the-art, equipped with the best in technology and communication. North Quad Residence Hall will be on interactive learning experience. When the Cardiovascular Center opens it may be an outstanding clinic, but it will not have an architectural identity as powerful as other University buildings.

The facility will have neither a snappy tagline nor a catchy name. The clinic has decided to pass on advertising and focus on quality. It was a good move.

But how could they resist? Why is the Cardiovascular Center not wholeheartedly advertised as a heart? The cardiac analogy is just too obvious and too distracting. It is the joke that is too cheesy. It is the end of a horrible movie where the main character explicitly tells the audience the conspicuous subplot. Exploiting the heart metaphor would have been an in-your-face punch line. The architects and University Health System are letting the Cardiovascular Center speak for itself.

Placed at the awkward corner of Observatory and Ann streets, the center appears short and unassuming. This is because of the rapid, topographic decline that surrounds the Hill area and makes its way down to Fuller Road throughout the Medical Campus. To put the site in perspective: the Detroit Observatory, currently adjacent to Alice Lloyd, was constructed in 1854 atop the highest point in the immediate area and surrounded by low fields.

The portion of the Cardiovascular Center facing the street is a valid attempt to reconcile this plunge. Although certainly an improvement over the rambling stairway that previously negotiated the hill, the entrance to the new facility remains slightly uncomfortable with its topographic constraints. A rather crazy fan-shaped overhang projects over the pedestrian entrance while a spiraling ramp directs cars to the parking garage below ground. These elements of the building’s south side struggle to find an aesthetic unity for their disparate functions. Sinking below the views of the street, however, the rest of the facility is wonderfully designed.

Nestled at the foot of the hill, the clinic is quietly dignified. The western portion of the building is covered with a long, curved glass surface interrupted only by a cylindrical, glass atrium. This elevation faces an elegantly landscaped exterior garden to provide solace for both patients and visitors. This simple architecture is devoid of frivolous, symbolic language, yet rich with straightforward solutions. Most of the building’s positive features are less apparent because they are less concerned with architecture and more related to providing quality care.

Sometimes, the best architecture is silent to the world because it speaks directly to our hearts. The Cardiovascular Center does not dwell on its appearance or its architectural image. Humbly efficient, the facility is reaching completion without the hype associated with many other cutting-edge University buildings. The University Health System and the architects are allowing the building to speak with its actions and not its words. It’s the perfect approach, considering that those admitted to the clinic will care about the building’s abstract analogy only if the doctors give them the chance to worry about something other than getting well. l

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