Art and Healing in Healthcare Environments, Part 2: Community and Storytelling

Community and Storytelling: Antelope Valley Medical Center

When Kaiser Permanente planned to open its new Antelope Valley Medical Center in the windy, high-desert region about 1.5 hours north of Los Angeles, they envisioned more than a place for sick people. They wanted—and local residents welcomed—a “total health environment” that would also serve as a community gathering place. The campus was ultimately developed to encompass not only patient care and medical offices, but playgrounds and walking trails, landscaped gardens and other outdoor spaces.

A unique partnership between two experience design firms—ex;it (Philadelphia) and Selbert Perkins Design (Los Angeles)—resulted in a super-scaled public art program that connects people, place and experience by telling the story of the community. At the same time, it augments a site-wide wayfinding program devised by SKA Design (S. Pasadena, Calif.).

The project was unique from the start. Both ex;it and Selbert Perkins were in the running for an assignment the client described initially as a “branded experience” for the community wellness center. ex;it President Alan Jacobson approached Kaiser with a novel proposal: hire both firms and we’ll deliver an even better outcome than just one of us could. The client agreed, and the firms collaborated over the next year, with ex;it leading its research-and-discovery process of “going deep” with community members and engaging them in public meetings, intercept interviews at existing Kaiser facilities and smaller focus groups.

With the community narratives ex;it gathered and interpreted, Selbert Perkins worked on the physical form of the experience, which turned out to be a monumental art project engaging the exterior of the site. Together, the two firms added another unique twist to the project: influencing the architectural master plan for the site, which had been completed by HGA Architects and Engineers.

With the user experience in mind, the firms suggested that the building’s orientation on the site be rotated 45 degrees so that on approach to the campus, visitors would see not a huge parking lot, but dramatic public art and landscaping features that express the heart and soul of the place. The architect and client agreed.

Ultimately, the 44-acre campus includes Kaiser’s 136,000 sq-.ft., LEED-Platinum medical office building surrounded by 12 acres of developed land, including 1.5 miles of meandering paths that connect outdoor “rooms” including an ampitheater, play zone, café and staff conference patio as well as a space used for a farmer’s market. Dramatic large-scale art punctuates the desert terrain and beckons visitors to the campus.

“The purpose of the art ultimately was to create this community center, this ‘third place’ that is not really a hospital and not really a city, but a place that connects people to their city and to Kaiser,” says Clifford Selbert, Selbert Perkins Design. “Kaiser would then have the reputation of not being just a sick place, but a place of health, vitality and transformation.”

Based on the user research, the design team rooted artwork in the community narrative, focusing on two assets the area is known for: butterflies and poppies. Antelope Valley is a key habitat for butterflies and is also the poppy capital of California (its annual poppy festival is known far and wide). It’s also a very windy place, so SPD designed sculptural art elements that playfully interact with the wind, including a series of giant pinwheels and a 25-ft.-tall aluminum mesh butterfly sculpture.

The butterfly-and-poppy motif continues in super scale on the 350-ft.-wide, blue-green undulating glass façade that insulates the building from the sun and wind. Rendered in semi-transparent vinyl film, poppies at the base of the façade give way to butterflies in flight—a subtle reference to positive transformation and to Kaiser’s commitment to total heath and the importance of the mind/body/spirit connection. From 5 to 16-ft. tall, the elements manage to look both dramatic and ethereal. They are repeated on the building’s oversized green signage fin, coordinating with Kaiser Permanente’s signage standards for medical office buildings.

Another narrative layer features inspirational quotes collected in collaboration with the community. Yet another consists of a series of butterflies etched in secret places around the site, adding to the sense of wonder and discovery. Butterfly forms and pattern languages also found their way into wayfinding elements inside and outside the building.

Jacobson says the key to the project’s success is its authenticity. “If it was just a commission, it wouldn’t be the same. The art we created here supports the stories of the people in this community—the people this place represents. That creates a sense of ownership.”


Client: Kaiser Permanente

Location: Lancaster, Calif.

Design: ex;it and Selbert Perkins Design

Wayfinding: SKA Design

Architect: Taylor Design

Master Planner: Hammel Green & Abrahamson Inc. (HGA Architects and Engineers)

Fabrication: CNP Signs & Graphics

Landscape Design: EPTDesign Inc.

Photos: Matt Givot

More in the Art and Healing Environments series:


Part 1: Integrating Art and Wayfinding: Seattle Children's Hospital

Part 3: Empathy and Engagement: Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center

Find more content on Wayfinding, Placemaking and Identity and other areas of interest in SEGD's Xplore Experiential Graphic Design index.

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