Developers Craft a Healing Habitat for Walton's Medical School

Developers Craft a Healing Habitat for Walton's Medical School
Wesley Walls, principal at Polk Stanley Wilcox in Little Rock, is the lead architect for the Alice L. Walton School of Medicine, a 154,000-SF medical school planned for a 14-acre site near Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville. (Jason Burt)

The Alice L. Walton School of Medicine isn’t much to look at right now after a groundbreaking ceremony in late March, but that will change as construction begins on the 154,000-SF facility on a 14-acre site in Bentonville.

“There is an enormous hole in the ground,” joked Simon David, the founding principal of the Office of Strategy & Design in New York City, the project’s landscape architect. “I wouldn’t say now is the time to go to the site and witness anything exciting.”

The school is being built on the grounds of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, another creation of Alice Walton, the daughter of Walmart Inc. founder Sam Walton. The 75,000-SF Whole Health Institute, Walton’s nonprofit holistic health center, is currently under construction on the museum’s grounds, and when the institute and medical school are completed, both will connect to the museum through trail systems.

School officials declined to release the total cost of the school. But a building permit for $32 million issued to Baldwin & Shell Construction Co. of Little Rock for a parking garage associated with the project gives an idea of its scope.

Walton’s dream is to remake health care by training prospective doctors to treat patients’ mental, emotional and spiritual needs in addition to their physical ones through a “whole health” concept. The marching orders for the medical school’s architecture and landscaping were to complement and emphasize that whole health totality.

“It was important that the school’s innovative, whole health approach to health care be reflected in the architecture, that the design needed to embrace the reality that our well-being is embodied not just in the physical, but also the mental and spiritual aspects of the human experience,” said Wesley Walls, principal at Polk Stanley Wilcox in Little Rock, the project’s lead architect. “Connection to nature, community engagement and innovative design were additional points of emphasis by Alice that were integrated throughout the project. Alice L. Walton School of Medicine is an ambitious undertaking by an innovative and forward-thinking leader, and the campus makes every attempt to embody that ethos.”

Work of Art

Design mock-ups show medical buildings that look less like places of learning and more like works of art, which is no surprise given Walton’s lifelong love of art.

“Northwest Arkansas is unique in its entrepreneurial spirit, focus on quality of life, natural resources and thriving art scene,” Walton said at the school’s groundbreaking March 30. “This campus will bring together nature, art, innovation, and well-being to create an inspiring environment for learning.”

The school will be four stories with all the expected classrooms and administrative offices. There will also be an underground parking garage.

“This campus sits in the shadow of renowned works of art and architecture, both current and ongoing,” Walls said. “The significance of this site and its context was not only revered by our team but protected by the project guidelines, requiring that the building contribute positively to the community and Crystal Bridges. We believe that the project is not only contextually appropriate within its context, but successfully reflects the school’s innovative and unconventional approach to medical education — a cantilevered promontory of contemporary healing.”

Despite its innovative look, the school’s construction will be composed of three materials: glass, concrete and brass-alloy metal panels.

“As a grand gesture — this abstraction of the Ozark landscape — it was important to simplify the palette in pursuit of fidelity for the overall concept,” Walls said.

The Polk Stanley Wilcox design was done in concert with landscaping by OSD of New York City. It involved much more than figuring out where to plant rose bushes. One of its iconic features: a 2-acre rooftop park.

“This is going to be the largest habitable, on-structure landscape in northwest Arkansas,” David said. “That requires a highly integrated coordination between the performance of the building and the performance of the landscape.

“It may look natural but it is a highly engineered, highly designed ecosystem that we are having to create on the rooftop park.”

The 11-member Polk Stanley Wilcox team, which includes principal-in-charge Mark Hermann, tried to make the building part of the landscape. Walls said the team came up with the idea to make the medical school “a literal, if not imperceptible, extension of the park itself.”

Working with OSD has been seamless, Walls said, a sentiment with which David agreed. Juggling the different aspects of such an ambitious project isn’t always easy.

“The blurring of the lines between site and building, between park and structure, is an ambitious concept, and our partnership with Simon David and his N.Y.C.-based landscape architectural firm has been instrumental in cultivating a cohesive campus vision,” Walls said.

The medical school is designed to not only impart Walton’s vision of whole health but something more fundamental, David said.

“How can we create an environment where people are stimulated by one another, by learning, by art, by architecture?” David said. “It’s not just about the building. It is about an environment. There are a diversity of gathering places for people to interact, everything from the size of several hundred at a commencement at the great lawn to the scale of one or two people who might just be studying.

“The idea that you are constantly stimulated by the community you are in is a really important idea. Giving the opportunity for people to interact, not just in a formal capacity but in an informal capacity is where new ideas take root and new friendships are made. It’s where the sense that you belong is really nourished.” 

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