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The Mackenzie Centre

Glassed-in elevators crawl skyward. Full-grown trees, green despite the icy blasts with which winter is announcing itself in Edmonton, are dwarfed by huge pipes standing on end. Streams of water cascade into a lighted pool. High above, narrow bridges span the architectural chasm. Higher still, a glass-like roof shuts out the unfriendly elements.

It is a startling panorama to find within a hospital, and one which proclaims a proud new era for the University of Alberta Hospitals, an era ceremonially marked when, on October 16 Premier Peter Lougheed of Alberta declared the Walter C. Mackenzie Health Sciences Centre, Phase One, to be officially open.

Seventy-six years earlier the history of the University of Alberta Hospitals had begun with another official opening, that of the Strathcona Hospital located not far away in a small frame house and established for about $1,500. In 1913 that hospital moved to the present site on the University of Alberta campus and its evolution into one of Canada’s foremost teaching hospitals began. As needs arose, ad hoc additions were frequently made to the original facility, without benefit of any master plan or goal. By the mid 1960s, however, it became obvious that the continuing growth and ever-increasing complexity of health sciences, coupled with the need for more sophisticated patient care was rapidly rendering the physical facilities of the University Hospitals inadequate and the discussion and planning that ultimately led to the Mackenzie Centre began.

In 1975 the University of Alberta and the University of Alberta Hospital Board made a joint proposal to the provincial government which called for the phased transformation of the University Hospital into the University of Alberta Health Sciences Centre. The new Centre would more completely physically integrate the hospital facilities with the Faculty of Medicine.

Renovation of the newer wings of the existing hospital had been considered, but the idea was abandoned as impractical. It was determined that the cost of renovations would approach the cost of new construction while yielding facilities with only one-quarter of the lifespan. Furthermore, many of the essential units — operating theatres, for instance — could not be relocated during the 18 months or so that would be required for their renovation to be complete. Therefore the proposal for the complete replacement was made, and in October 1976 the government agreed to fund the first phase of the project, the planning, design and construction of which was to be the responsibility of the Hospital Board.

Following the death in 1978 of the man who was dean of medicine at the University of Alberta from 1959 until his retirement in 1974, the decision was made to name the new health sciences centre the Walter C. Mackenzie Health Sciences Centre to commemorate his inspirational leadership in medical education and surgery, not only at the University where he was based but throughout the world.

There were two major — indeed, overriding — concerns that went into the design of the Mackenzie Centre: it was to be a pleasant and attractive place for both patients and staff, and it was to be so designed that it would permit the most effective use of the rapid advances being made in scientific medical knowledge.

In an address given at the Edmonton Health Executives Forum in November 1980, Eberhard Zeidler, one of the principals involved in the architectural consortium formed to design the health sciences centre, talked about the need for the creation of spaces that fulfill the emotional needs of human beings:

You are not just sick, you are also a human being with similar emotions even, perhaps, more heightened ones than a healthy person; you enjoy as much the light and sun, the greening of leaves, a pleasant space to be in, activities that arouse your interest. Amazingly, staff are also people, with the same emotions and the same needs for such an environment. I think this is what we often forget in our quest to build functional and economical hospitals.

Touring the first phase of the Mackenzie Centre you can see the fruits of this concern. The patient rooms are not only functional and efficient, they are bright and cheerful. And, most spectacular, are the two large atrium courtyards with their water, greenery and bright open spaces.

Rather than being extravagant additions, the atria are practical as well as pretty. The original design for the Centre envisaged three separate wings without enclosed atria. Studies indicated that it would not only save capital costs but also energy costs if the space between the wings was enclosed — which makes sense when you consider that an 18-metre roof eliminated the need for 55 metres of exterior wall. The atrium courtyards which were created provided ideal space for a variety of uses, cafeteria, coffee shop, sitting areas and so on. They are a particular bonus in Edmonton where the long winter nights can lead to a mole-like existence, the citizenry going to work and returning in the dark. Throughout the day, the atria provide a bright sunlit space with ample greenery at the end of each hospital corridor.

The abundance of plants is designed to serve a psychological purpose: seeing the growth, the patients will feel encouraged and secure. The waterfall, as well as being sensually soothing, provides an ambient or ‘white’ noise that gives privacy of conversation. And the flowing water imparts much-needed humidity into the air.

Advances in medicine, particularly technological advances, today occur at an unprecedented rate, and any new medical facility being built must make provision for that or be doomed to early obsolescence. In the planning of the Mackenzie Centre reference was made to a study on medical and research buildings at the University of California campuses which showed that in a 40-year period the capital costs associated with changes to the buildings amounted to three and one-half times the original capital costs — in other words, it would have been no more expensive to knock down the buildings and rebuild them almost every 10 years. Clearly, the new U of A health sciences centre would have to be designed to accommodate change.

The primary means by which flexibility was built into the Mackenzie Centre involves the use of what is known to architects as ‘interstitial space’. The floor-to-floor height in the Mackenzie Centre is 5.5 metres (or about 18'), but the actual occupiable floor extends for only about half that, its floor-to-ceiling height is 2.5 metres (the normal height in most buildings). The remaining accessible — interstitial — space houses all of the building’s mechanical and electrical services and systems. In effect, each ‘floor’ is actually two, one for people and one below for services. This means that most changes to accommodate new technology will be accomplished easily with an absolute minimum of disruption in the habitable space. Largely through the use of interstitial space, the Mackenzie Centre has been designed to have a life expectancy of 100 years.

In May, 1982 the Alberta government gave final approval to financing of the second and final phase of the Mackenzie Centre. When it is completed, the Centre will stretch almost three city blocks, linking the University’s Medical Sciences Building on the north with the Clinical Sciences Building on the south. Although through the more effective use of space the Centre will actually take up less land than the previous jumble of hospital and hospital-related buildings on the site, it is one of the largest health sciences centres under construction in North America.

In fact, J. Gordon Pincock, vice-president of planning and development for the University of Alberta Hospitals has expressed doubt that “we will see another project of this magnitude anywhere else in Canada.” He added that “I doubt that we would have seen the Centre built if it wasn’t for the Alberta Heritage Fund.” The Centre construction is being totally funded by the Alberta Heritage Savings Trust Fund.

When the total project is completed, the Centre will provide 843 hospital beds in addition to space for administrative, clinical, research, and other services. While the total number of beds will be less than the number which existed in the old hospital (999) it is believed that an increased emphasis on ambulatory care will more than compensate for this. In keeping with this emphasis, the new Centre incorporates a 40-bed day ward where patients will he admitted for day surgery, extensive medical tests and some treatments; adjacent will be a suite of four day surgical operating rooms. It is expected that at least 80 patients a day will be cared for in the day ward, freeing acute-care beds and reducing surgical waiting lists.

A 125-bed hostel is another feature which is expected to reduce the need for hospital beds. The hostel, which is being developed in the former Interns’ Residence adjacent to the Centre, will be used for patients who are undergoing some type of treatment, are ambulatory, and do not require nursing care. Currently many of these patients, particularly those from out of town, are occupying hospital beds because of their need to be close to the hospital. In addition, the hostel will be available for escorts of patients or parents of children who have been admitted. While there will be no nursing staff at the hostel, there will be 24-hour supervision.

Published Winter 1982.

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