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Designing for collaborative cancer treatment

Arturo Vasquez shares the inspiration and personal fulfillment that comes from designing the UCSF Precision Cancer Medical Building

By Arturo Vasquez del Mercado, AIA, Senior Associate (San Francisco, California)

Some hospitals create an experience that’s never been seen in healthcare. At the UCSF Precision Cancer Medicine Building, the cancer treatment experience is designed to demonstrate for patients and doctors a new, collaborative way to treat the disease. Architect Arturo Vasquez shares the inspiration and personal fulfillment that comes from designing an emotional project like this.

Q: You’ve said that this project has been inspiring, even transformative. Why?

A: The word transformative is important. We learned very early from our client that this building represents the future of healthcare. The “precision medicine” that will happen in this facility transforms cancer care into a targeted treatment of the individual within the realm of cancer, as opposed to the traditional method of treating the cancer in the individual.

The other transformative change this building provides is inclusivity. Traditional hospitals appear unapproachable. Hospital forms have been exclusive in terms of how they come down to the street, how they engage the community--even the landscapes can appear defensive. We took great pains in the design of PCMB to extend the sidewalk and create a larger opportunity for people, who may not necessarily be coming to the hospital or to the cancer center, to engage with the building by pushing in the ground level and setting up plaza-like environments where people can sit and relax.

Q: What is your design style, and how is it reflected in the new UCSF PCMB?

A: In the 18th century a very famous poet and landscape theoretician named Alexander Pope associated the term "genius loci," or “sense of place” with the landforms and local environment.

For me, grounding architecture and design into place resonates more than working within a style. It's a matter of understanding where the building sits, its context, not only locally, but ideologically and physically. In San Francisco, it’s the bay that permeates our lives and how we do things. We took inspiration from the natural elements of the Bay Area in visioning the architecture for the Precision Cancer Medical Building at UCSF. For example, the San Francisco coast features picturesque coves that allow tides to flow with ease. The first-floor lobby is designed to help clinicians and patients move throughout the building just as easily, with alcoves that resemble coves and larger open spaces that simulate the larger bay.

Q: What does a project like this do for a designer’s soul?

A. The UCSF team is full of genuine people. That makes for a wonderful working partnership, because our work was from the heart. We were trying to create an important, meaningful environment. That was the soul of the process, the soul of the building, and the souls of the people involved. This also comes with challenges because everyone is passionate. But It makes for a very rich dialogue. When you’re all trying to passionately move in the same direction with team members who love what they do--it’s not a job anymore. That’s where the soul comes in.

Q: Do you have any life experiences with hospitals that shaped your approach?

A: Yes, some profound ones. My mother had a serious medical condition that brought my sister, brother, and myself to the hospital constantly, beginning around age 8 and continuing well into my adulthood. My siblings and I painfully watched and saw that facilities were often woefully unprepared to deal with unique needs of individual patients. For all of us, it inspired a mission to serve in and improve the healthcare experience. My brother is now a doctor, my sister a nurse, and I’m an architect helping to design healing spaces.

Q: Working on a successful team like this one, what’s your advice to other architects?

A: If some of the best ideas and the best work is left on paper, as an architect, you're essentially just a “paper tiger.” The culmination of your experience is the buildings that you’ve designed and built. All the other stuff stays on paper and means nothing. So, you must be flexible. You need a reservoir of ideas, and you need to adapt, because, as an architect, the buildings are your legacy.

That's why I became an architect, to design buildings, and I'll do the best I can.  At the end of the day, what we build is how good we are. My first boss said: "Either that, or you're a paper tiger." You don't want to be a paper tiger, you want to build buildings.

Q: Is this project in any way a culmination project of your career?

A: No, no. I'm going to work until I am not able to see or draw.

On PCMB, not only do we have a fantastic design team here at Stantec, but we work with a client that is pushing us to be the best, led by visionary clinicians—that doesn't always happen. Often, one of the pieces is missing. You might have a visionary doctor, but a facilities representative that is apathetic. If not that scenario, there may be some other aspect that doesn't fall into place. So, this unity, I would say, is the salient element of this project.

I think about architecture like an actor, in the sense that an actor tries to learn about and put himself into a character. In my case, the character is the building. With each new project, I’m ready to discover the next character. I like the challenge of inhabiting a new set of circumstances, having new people to dialogue with, discovering new environments, and always looking for the next challenge. 

When you’re all trying to passionately move in the same direction with team members who love what they do--it’s not a job anymore. That’s where the soul comes in.

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