Children and families who arrive at the freestanding Our Lady of the Lake Children’s Hospital will encounter an enchanting entrance unlike any they’ve seen or heard before.
Patients and visitors will enter beneath a canopy of blue and green transparent glass that casts calming, colorful shadows while Louisiana swamp sounds croak and chirp from 24 speakers.
What will make it truly unique, though, is that it’s interactive. Anyone who presses a hand to one of the inviting handprints located on the support columns will trigger a series of melodic instruments that will even effect the lighting.
The experience is the creation of renowned artist, musician and architect Chris Janney of Boston. “I call it an urban musical instrument,” he said. “I create performances.”
Called the Harmonic Grove, it is intended to create a soothing, calming but creatively playful environment, Janney explained. It’s just one way children and families will experience a place designed and built from the ground up just for them.
The canopy was made possible by generous gifts, the largest of which was by Steve and Kathy Nathanson. Steve is a member of the board of directors of the Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady Health System, and he and his wife are also supporters of Franciscan University.
Turner Industries, whose workers will assemble the canopy, provided in-kind donations of materials and labor. Dow donated the vast amount of caulk required to complete the installation.
Fabricator Delta Structures Inc. will assemble the 4,000-square-foot canopy in front of the entrance site. Turner Industries will then hoist the canopy’s 88 sheets of 6-feet by 6-feet thick, transparent colored glass into place where it will be welded together and supported by 12 structural columns.
The final step will be to install the speakers, wiring and lighting.
Janney’s work may not have caught the attention of the construction committee if not for a suggestion from Capital Area United Way Director George Bell, who discovered Janney’s work from a former coworker.
“I was intrigued by his ability to creatively integrate art, music and architecture into functional yet artistically engaging public spaces,” Bell said. “I knew this would be an ideal match for Our Lady of the Lake Children’s Hospital.”
Although the Harmonic Grove may be a new experience for many visitors, Janney has spent the past 40 years perfecting the unison of sound and architecture to create unforgettable interactive public spaces.
After studying architecture at Princeton University — as well as playing in various experimental jazz and rock bands — Janney honed his approach during a 10-year research fellowship at MIT’s Center for Advanced Visual Studies.
There, he conceived the prototype for his signature Soundstair, a musical staircase that delights children and adults by producing music with every step. St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis and Boston Children’s Hospital both feature Soundstairs.
“I have seen children at the top of the Soundstair in tears and then laughing in delight by the time they get to the bottom,” Janney said.
For the Harmonic Grove, Janney chose transparent blue and green glass, evoking the beauty of Louisiana’s natural ecosystem. For the sound field he recorded birds, insects and other sounds at BREC’s Bluebonnet Swamp in Baton Rouge. He added the calls of indigenous birds taken from the digital archive at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, one of America’s leading authorities on birds.
Janney said he never quite knows how an installation will feel until it comes to life. Such was the case when he collaborated with Mikhail Baryshnikov in which he enabled the famed ballet dancer to perform to a soundtrack of his heartbeat in real time.
“When I finally got it built and first turned it on, it was far more powerful than in my imagination,” Janney told MIT Technology Review in 2016. “It opened my mind to another level of awareness.”
That’s just what awaits children and families who experience the Harmonic Grove at Our Lady of the Lake Children’s Hospital in 2019.
Photo: Robin Hill