Interview: Paul Lewandowski’s Experiential Design

You’re designing an experience, not a building. You’re creating feelings for people as they move through a space—via colors, light, temperature, materials and textures. And the experiences are fleeting; you only have a few seconds to create those feelings.

Architect Paul Lewandowski’s designs focus on the people who walk through his walls, not the walls themselves. He creates environments, beginning and ending with how people will experience those environments.

Lewandowski’s approach is obvious in MaineGeneral Health’s latest addition in Augusta, Maine—a 600,000 square-foot, $300 million facility that exemplifies humanistic design and includes an art collection of over 200 original works by some of Maine’s leading artists.

Humanistic Design

This is especially important in healthcare, where people with compromised health are more sensitive to their surroundings. You have to take it seriously.

Patient experience is something you hear a lot these days in healthcare. More than just clinical care, the patient experience takes into account every aspect of the care given to a patient and the experience a patient has at a facility.

According to the Beryl Institute’s Patient Experience Journal, the patient experience includes all the things that happen across the continuum of care, a focus on tailored services and individualized care that makes patients partners in their care, patient expectations, patient satisfaction and care focused on the patient and their loved ones.

Naturally, the patient experience includes facility design.

Interpreting Evidence

The Center for Health Design stresses evidence-based designs in healthcare.

“A large and growing body of evidence attests to the fact that physical environment impacts patient stress, patient and staff safety, staff effectiveness and quality of care provided in hospitals and other healthcare settings,” the organization writes. “Basing healthcare facility planning and design decisions on this evidence to achieve the best possible patient, staff and operational outcomes is what evidence-based design is all about.”

Lewandowski agrees, but he also points to the importance of interpretation in the process—a blending of art and science.

Rules of thumb are great, but you have to interpret them—you can’t make everything pastel, for example, or it’ll be too washed out. We know that scenes of nature help people heal faster, but interpretations of nature can work too.

Lately, there’s a real movement towards references to nature rather than straight scenes of nature. Expressionist scenes of nature, for example, aren’t necessarily good for healthcare as a whole, but some of them are.

MaineGeneral’s Natural Design

This is true for MaineGeneral’s new facility, which opened in 2013. At the time, the Belfast Creative Coalition wrote that the design reflected a commitment to the idea that nature can help healing—with its natural light, stone terrace, garden, fountains and artwork from the likes of Jeanne Marie Coleman, a Maine-based nature photographer.

For the design, Lewandowski worked with Erin Anderson and the rest of the team at SMRT Architects and Engineers to create a palette of natural colors for each of the facility’s four floors, based on themes (i.e., fields, rivers, mountains), and then chose artwork to match each. Lewandowski said that while each floor has its own theme, the experience as a whole is a unified one—a single journey or narrative.

I design spaces because I want people to use them, enjoy them. It’s not easy.

Designing a Public Space

Often, public projects become an exercise in compromise. Designs have to accommodate visual versus literal sensibilities as well as a variety of tastes.

One of the more notorious examples of this is the controversy over Richard Serra’s sculpture Tilted Arc in New York’s Federal Plaza. The piece—a 120-foot-long, 12-foot-high wall of steel—went up in 1981 and came down in 1989 after a protracted legal dispute.

The wall essentially cut the plaza in two, forcing people to walk around it. At the time, Serra told PBS that the point of the sculpture was to make viewers aware of themselves as they moved through the plaza. But the workers who had to walk around it every day didn’t see it that way. To them, it was a nuisance and potential security concern.

Lewandowski understands the nature of public projects, which partly explains the themes and matching art for each floor of MaineGeneral.

Lots of people don’t get modern art, but with the themes they begin to understand the overall design and how the art fits in. The people on the committee get the system, they feel empowered and they buy into it.

We started with education about evidence-based design and where we could break from it to be edgier. When we started getting into the actual design—showing them mockups with small pictures of art in situ—the committee members were well-equipped to make informed decisions.

Choosing Art

MaineGeneral has committed to using art as a healing tool. When designing the new building, the hospital opted for original artwork rather than the more typical framed posters we usually see. The facility also opted for local artists and edgier art.

We wanted original art with a focus on nature themes. But we also wanted Maine artists—to help give the artists exposure and also to connect with the patients.

One painting of a piece of green machinery in a field [The Old World by Veronica Cross] wasn’t a typical piece of hospital art, but it was something Maine patients might associate with. In fact, I was driving one day and went past the machinery in the field. It was still out there in the landscape. Driving past, I was like: “Oh, wow, that’s the piece!”

There was also a small work—12 inches by 12 inches or so—of a cow. We decided to hang that one in the children’s ER, and we hung it low on the wall, at child’s height. We weren’t so serious about it—we thought it might take away some stress for the children visiting.

Working within the confines of a committee was a challenge, especially when looking for art with an edgier feel.

The selection process for art in public space involves a lot of people (galleries, committee members, designers, artists). One of the keys things is to work well with the group and accommodate the local tastes.

Elizabeth Moss [Elizabeth Moss Galleries] helped a lot with that. She got on board and pulled great pieces for us. She was really good at predicting what people would like and dealing with the group dynamics because she’s used to working with people in Maine. For example, she could tell us the artists’ back stories, which we could then bring to the committee.

Overall, I’m really proud of the collection and really pleased the client wanted to invest in it. The benefits outweigh the costs; they did the right thing. I’m glad to be a part of it, and glad Elizabeth could be too.


Paul Lewandowski is an architect and interior design principal at SMRT Architects and Engineers in Portland, Maine, and Assistant Professor of Textile and Fashion Design at the Maine College of Art.

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