Playful art that lights up, sounds off and reacts enlivens children's hospitals

February 1, 2020


Before visitors enter the main lobby at Our Lady of the Lake Children's Hospital, they pass under a glass and metal canopy where tinted panels transform sunlight into a dazzling array of colors. Speakers spread beneath the framework release the chirps and splashes of the Louisiana bayou. On the columns that support the 4,000-square-foot canopy are colorful handprints that, when touched, set off musical serenades with melodic flourishes of flutes, marimbas or acoustic guitar.


The artistic installation at the Baton Rouge, Louisiana, hospital is called Harmonic Grove. Dr. Shaun Kemmerly, chief medical officer, says the artwork sets the kid-friendly tone of the six-story hospital that opened in October.

"It draws you in," Kemmerly says. "It's an intuitive way to bring kids and families onto our campus and make it a less scary space. It's just kind of fun from the outset."

The playful tone is carried by other features at the hospital, including vivid paint schemes and animal mascots inside and park-like play areas with benches and paths outside. The hospital is part of Our Lady of the Lake Children's Health, a network within Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady Health System.

New art for new spaces
Harmonic Grove is one of at least three art installations at Catholic children's hospitals that incorporate sound and light and, in two of them, interactive elements. Each of the hospitals are newly built or renovated.

Artist Christopher Janney touches a handprint that triggers a melodic response at Harmonic Grove, the colorful and sound-enhanced entry to the main lobby at Our Lady of the Lake Children's Hospital in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Janney designed the interactive installation.

CHRISTUS Health's The Children's Hospital of San Antonio has been undergoing extensive renovations and expansion for about eight years to convert a downtown community hospital building into a freestanding pediatric hospital. The city's biggest tourist draw, the San Antonio River Walk, is just a few blocks away. The "Spirit of the River" brings the river's pulse inside as an art installation. The structure's lights fluctuate between green, blue and purple in an artistic recreation of the path and flow of the San Antonio River from the city toward the Gulf of Mexico.

Studer Family Children's Hospital at Ascension Sacred Heart in Pensacola, Florida, which moved to a new four-story building in May, has an interactive art installation in its lobby. Bursts of color and random moving images with various shapes like hearts and flowers are keyed to the movement of people standing in front of the artwork and appear on its 10-foot-wide floor-to-ceiling screen.

Leaders at each hospital say the installations were part of the decor plans early on to add color, amusement and, in the San Antonio and Baton Rouge works, a sense of place. For Baton Rouge, that place is the bayou. The speakers in the Harmonic Grove canopy are programmed to play sounds from the slow-moving streams and marshes that crisscross Louisiana and are home to an abundance of wildlife and vegetation. The artwork's glass panels are largely in the same blue and green color scheme picked up inside the hospital and meant to reflect the shades of the Mississippi delta.

The interactive wall in Pensacola is mostly about fun rather than fitting specifically into the hospital's city-centric decor, which includes murals of the nearby Gulf beaches and Naval air base.

Children engage as the interactive wall responds to their movements at Studer Family Children's Hospital at Ascension Sacred Heart in Pensacola, Florida. The wall is one of the playful design features in the hospital's new building.

Artist Christopher Janney designed Harmonic Grove. He says he was commissioned after someone connected to Our Lady of the Lake saw his Soundstair installation at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee. That piece uses photoelectric sensors to emit melodic and natural sounds in time with the steps of people as they ascend or descend a staircase. Janney installed a similar piece at Boston Children's Hospital.

"I say that my work is good for children of all ages, 2-92," Janney says. "I think it's a great way to stimulate creative play. That's a very good thing to have, I think, in a children's hospital environment."

Harmonic Grove includes a "riddle" that's on a small plaque. When someone deciphers the riddle and touches the handprints in the pillars in a certain order, the piece answers with a short "dance" of flashing colors and sound.


Pleasant distractions
When children dance, stomp or move at all on a section of tile floor in front of the interactive art wall at Studer Family Children's, their motions are picked up by sensors in the ceiling that trigger flowers, splashes of color and other imagery on the wall. Will Condon, president of Studer Family, jokes that the more scuff marks there are on the tile floor, the better. "Anything we can do to get the kids up and moving we love to do, and this whole new technology has really helped with that," he says.

Dallas-based HKS Inc., the architecture and interior design firm for the new hospital, installed the wall. Other kid-centric design features include colorful murals and playrooms.

"The full intent of the design was how do we distract the kids from why they're really here? How do we make them as comfortable as possible while they're going through not the easiest time in their life?" Condon says.

Balancing priorities
At The Children's Hospital of San Antonio, Dana Rohman, associate chief nursing officer, was among employees who weighed in on the plans for the extensive renovations that continue there. "We've tried to balance two different priorities," she says. "One is kids and fun and what's intimidating and not intimidating but also to highlight our religious and faith-based ministry."


The Spirit of the River is on two floors of the 12-story hospital. On the first floor, the wall's blue, green and purple lighting is a vivid contrast to the stark white round chapel that dominates the main lobby. That section of the wall is 152 feet long. On the second floor, another section stretches 104 feet. On both sections, resin ribs with curving contours are reminiscent of the San Antonio River cutting through its bed.

The installation was designed by Atlanta-based EYP Architecture and Engineering.

The "Spirit of the River" wall casts a changing pattern and hue of blue, green and purple light on two floors of The Children's Hospital of San Antonio. The art installation mirrors the course of the San Antonio River, which flows nearby.

Rohman says the wall and the dramatic design and prominence of the chapel are key features of the renovations that have updated the 150-year-old hospital. "People come in with a preconceived notion that this is the old hospital and then they're overwhelmed with how modern and beautiful the hospital, especially the front lobby, is," she says.

Ever-changing attraction
Kemmerly, of Our Lady of the Lake, says the new children's hospital is a big hit with patients and staff. She says people tell her: "I'm so happy here." She says part of the hospital's popularity is due to its colorful and playful features like Harmonic Grove, which casts an ever-changing splash of colors from the entryway into the lobby.

"If you come into the hospital in the morning you may experience it one way and if you go out at a different time of day it's a different experience," Kemmerly says. "It's just pretty remarkable."

See the “Spirit of the River” installation at CHRISTUS Health’s The Children’s Hospital of San Antonio

Copyright © 2020 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.