McMaster University Health Sciences Centre

The McMaster University Health Sciences Centre (MHSC), designed by Craig, Zeidler & Strong Architects, opened it doors to the public on May 27, 1972. Located in Hamilton, Ont, the 122 446-square-metre facility was widely recognized in architectural journals at the time as presenting a visionary approach to healthcare architecture. The significant design innovation was a supporting long-span space-frame structure within which core activities were envisioned as mobile units of space that could be plugged into the super-structure, thereby allowing the physical form of the building to change and expand alongside the shifting demands of healthcare.

Occupying a spot at the entrance to the university campus, the MHSC was key to McMaster president Dr. Harry Thode's campus expansion plan and was envisioned as the architectural component of the university's experimental interdisciplinary medical program. The new facility created spaces and services to support the integration of research, teaching and patient care within a single facility. While these activities overlapped in the hospital prior to construction of the MHSC, laboratories, classrooms and hospitals were, in general, separated by architectural edifice. Developed in connection with the Royal Commission on Health Services (1964), a comprehensive plan to improve health care quality and access to health care, the MHSC signaled a turning point in Canadian medical history - the shift from hospital to health science centre.

Playing a pivotal role in this change, the MHSC architects designed with fun and flexibility in mind. Eschewing the common practice of stacking wards one on top of the other, creating a tower with a central elevator, Craig, Zeidler & Strong spread functions horizontally around 4 elevator cores. Visitors entered from Main Street onto the second level of the four-storey structure and, instead of a sanitized esthetic, they encountered colourful wayfinding strategies, striped carpets, supergraphics and retail shops. Just beyond this, the Esplanade, a large open-air courtyard, cut into the building's centre to provide entry from the campus side and an organizational space for the facility's varied activities. To support the changing needs of staff, student and patient areas, the highly sophisticated mechanical system was housed within the super-structure. Tall enough to walk through, this interstitial space allowed for furnishings and equipment to be plugged into the system wherever required. Expressing the optimism of the era, architect Eberhard Zeidler claimed in his book Healing the Hospital, McMaster Health Science Centre: Its Conception and Evolution that this flexibility was the fifth dimension of architecture.

The MHSC was an architecture of the 1960s and '70s megastructure polemic. The concept of super-structures into which smaller constructions were plugged was popularized by the architectural idea collective, Archigram. Tower buildings were falling out of favour as horizontal buildings were argued to be more efficient and Louis Kahn used an interstitial space design at the Salk Institute (1966). By combining architectural ideas of the era, Craig, Zeidler & Strong created, as Reyner Banham put it in Megastructure: Urban Futures of the Recent Past, "the quintessential megastructure hospital." While the MHSC building did not grow and is not very flexible, the design for McMaster's experiment introduced important developments, such as interstitial space, to Canadian healthcare architecture, significantly influencing the shape of Canada's medical landscape.