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Summer 1999
That Human Touch
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By drenching UCLA's new medical center in light and wrapping it in abundant greenery, world-renowned architect I.M. Pei has designed a hospital for the next century that will itself become an active partner in the process of healing
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By Michael Webb

A building, to be sure, can be a place of healing. But can a building heal?

It is the conviction of architect I.M. Pei that indeed it can. The very environment of a hospital, says Pei, "should be a cheerful and healing one. A hospital, regardless of how big it is, should feel like it is made for people and not just for machines."

That is what Pei and his team of architects have designed for the new UCLA Medical Center. From their drawing boards will rise a structure that is flooded in natural light and embraced by softly rounded blocks of travertine and glass emerging from landscaped courtyards and roof gardens. Views of greenery and a comfortable scale make the whole building feel warm and inviting, a healing place.

Scheduled to open in 2004, UCLA's new medical center is a huge leap forward from the intimidating labyrinth of the existing complex, which has been expanded haphazardly over five decades to include 86 entrances and 27 miles of corridors. The new million-square-foot hospital is a marvel of advanced technology, but with a human face. All patient rooms will be spacious and private and will include the latest equipment so that most procedures can be done at bedside. Computerized touch screens will allow patients to chart the progress of their treatment, select a movie or order a meal.

It will be, at every level, a radical new environment for healing, say its planners. The transformation is long overdue. For the past nine years, U.S. News & World Report has ranked UCLA Medical Center as the best hospital in the West and among the top five in the nation. It anchors an internationally respected complex of teaching and research facilities that occupy most of the south campus and which are increasingly interconnected with the College of Letters and Science. The hospital is the frontline trauma center for 4 million people in Los Angeles County and provides intensive care for organ transplants and life-threatening diseases.

But the present facility is a jumble. On any given day, as many as 6,000 people pass through the warren of buildings and wings; it is said that the interlocking buildings have more corridor space than any other building in the United States, save for the Pentagon. Getting from one point to another is not an easy journey. Physicians, patients on gurneys, meal providers and custodians vie for space in the eight elevators, and it can take a surgeon 15 minutes to hike from an entrance to his or her office. From time to time, sections of the buildings must be shut down for emergency repairs.

The movement toward transforming the complex was born of destruction. A year after the deadly January 1994 Northridge earthquake, a committee reported it would take 21 years and $2 billion to bring the medical center into compliance with California's tough new seismic codes. Even then, the layout would remain as convoluted and frustrating as before. A fresh start, literally from the ground up, was

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