The Best New Health Care Design Borrows An Old Healing Technique: Plants

Architecture that heals–with help from mother nature.


This week, the American Institute of Architects announced seven new, stand-out structures designed to help heal patients, whether the focus is cancer treatment, reproductive health, or pediatrics. One constant that runs through these diverse buildings, though, is green space.


As innovations in the medical field make their way from theory to practice, the architecture of health care facilities often follows suit. The idea that access to nature improves patient health isn’t new: In the 19th century, asylums often reflected a V-shaped footprint based on the now-debunked theories of psychiatrist Thomas Story Kirkbride–who argued that the shape would allow all the wings to get fresh air and light, part of his “morality” cure for mental illness. Finnish architect Alvar Aalto incorporated numerous balconies and loads of windows into the iconic Paimio Sanatorium, since fresh air and sunlight were considered essential for curing tuberculosis. In the 1970s, Danish artist Poul Gernes festooned Copenhagen’s Herlev Hospital with vibrant colors since the doctors believed a “nice” environment would help speed patient recovery.

Today, architects of health care facilities are borrowing from a diverse range of sources, including Apple, Starbucks, theater design, and even luxury day spas.

But amid all of these clever new tricks lies an old saw: the power of plants to create an atmosphere that provides medical benefits. Studies have shown that contact with nature has positive effects on health and well being and that nature is a key component in the optimal environment for healing. Psychology is a powerful thing, and it’s been shown that nature helps reduce stress. Considering that hospitals cause anxiety in many people, the more stress-relieving elements the better.

For example, at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Regional Ambulatory Cancer Center in West Harrison, New York, the architects at EwingCole conceived of the lobby as a “garden room” overlooking an upper and lower green space. On the top floor, the architects also built special zones for gardens.

Meanwhile, architects at ZGF built a healing garden at the The University of Arizona Cancer Center in Phoenix and enclosed it with a shade structure so that patients and providers can use it even during the hot summers.

Bruce Damonte

Zen gardens at Kaiser’s Radiation Oncology Center in Anaheim, California, help ease patients’ minds as they undergo physically grueling cancer treatment. Stress-relief was a prime motivator for Yazdani Studio of CannonDesign as it conceived of the design and views to the landscape are emphasized wherever possible.

Tom Rossiter

Throughout the Christ Hospital Joint and Spine Center in Cincinnati, Ohio, SOM incorporated spaces for family and patients to retreat to for a little rest and solitude. Outside, this strategy includes a courtyard and rooftop garden.

Benjamin Benschneider

Home of the only level-one trauma care center in southeastern Louisiana, the University Medical Center New Orleans by NBBJ has three wings extending from the building. (From above it looks like a letter “E.”) The architects incorporated courtyards that offer a visual reprieve from the hospital rooms, areas for staff and patients to have lunch, and a site for hosting special events.

Spy these structures and more in the slide show above.

About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.