Can Google architects work their magic on China's depressing hospitals?

NBBJ has designed offices for Google, Microsoft and Tencent. Now it’s turning its hand towards a sector notorious for monotonous designs and depressing environments

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 30 June, 2015, 9:31am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 17 January, 2018, 1:05pm

Experience in designing office buildings for technology giants from Google and Microsoft to Tencent has inspired the architecture firm NBBJ to make blueprints for China’s hospital buildings, which are otherwise notorious for their overcrowded spaces, monotonous designs and depressing environments.

Hospitals should be designed to be flexible spaces that can accommodate new technology and equipment and encourage a smooth flow of staff and goods, according to NBBJ, one of a number of foreign architecture firms with ambitions in the China market.

Having designed facilities for 11 out of the top 17 American hospitals and medical centres, the company has announced plans to expand on the mainland, where it has only one finished project – Shanghai Children’s Medical Centre. The company has been ranked the second-largest healthcare architecture firm by the UK magazine Building Design.

Rudy Widjaja, the firm’s Shanghai principal and the person in charge of Asia Healthcare Practice, said new technology had brought tremendous changes to the medical sector: doctors now used social media to communicate with patients, and apps helped patients reduce their waiting times in registering and purchasing medicine.

“For hospitals, to accommodate new technology and this kind of lifestyle change, I think we need to make sure that designs are flexible enough for space to adapt over the next few years,” he told the South China Morning Post. “In the near future, hospital design should be very flexible, so any new technology can adapt and can be used to help hospitals to operate efficiently.”

Besides the Shanghai Children’s Medical Centre, which opened in 1998, the client list of NBBJ on the mainland recently included Shanghai Jiahui International Hospital.

Jiahui hospital is under construction and set to open in 2017. To make it look like a “hospital in a garden”, NBBJ designed a large, park-like central courtyard with trees and shrubbery that will be visible from most areas on the lower levels of the hospital building, said Widjaja. The firm applied energy conservation technology and materials in the design.

Widjaja said he was optimistic about the medical industry in China, where people were increasingly interested in their health and government plans called for hundreds of new clinics to be built or maintained in the next three years.

“Because there is a great energy and commitment right now in China to reform the design of healthcare facilities, we look forward to doing business in China,” he said.

Over the past few years, mainland authorities have been encouraging private capital to invest in the health sector to boost resources and cut the burden on crowded public hospitals.

Foreign investors are allowed to set up joint-venture or wholly-owned medical institutions in some selected cities.

Chinese hospitals, especially the large public ones in metropolises, are notoriously crowded. Patients often queue for hours for checkups, meetings with doctors, and even to pay for their drugs. As a consequence, doctors and nurses are stressed.

Essentially, the problem would be solved by government policies, said Widjaja, but architecture firms could help by making the insides of hospitals “flow” so that medical staff could work efficiently.

Architects would work with hospital staff to find ways to move people, goods and medical equipment smoothly, he said.

The company was targeting international investors interested in “innovative designs”, said Widjaja, adding that it was designing fewer than 10 hospitals in other mainland cities.

Besides hospitals and universities, the company is known for designing offices for high-tech companies, like Google, Microsoft and Samsung as well as Alibaba’s Alipay in Hangzhou and the Tencent headquarters in Shenzhen.