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In the Lap of Therapy

Tasked with building a facility for a totally new paradigm of health care delivery, San Francisco’s KMD Architects draw inspiration from the world of high-end hospitality for Seoul’s luxurious, futuristic Chaum Center.

By Carol Tisch; photography by Samuel Fajner

Tasked with building a facility for a totally new paradigm of health care delivery, San Francisco’s KMD Architects draw inspiration from the world of high-end hospitality for Seoul’s luxurious, futuristic Chaum Center.


It may seem like science fiction, but the medical paradigm of the future is already a reality in Seoul, South Korea. It is embodied in the Chaum Center, a prototype lifestyle destination for a new brand of health care delivery system that necessitated and inspired a radically altered medical environment. And in the few months since it opened in October 2010, the center has become a mecca for health care professionals from the far corners of the globe—all seeking to study firsthand the design DNA of a facility commissioned by world-renowned anti-aging expert and founder of CHA Health Systems, Dr. Kwang Yul Cha.

Dr. Cha's singular vision for a brave new world of integrated, personalized health care informed the audacious interior architecture by San Francisco-based KMD Architects, which seamlessly blends the best of health care and hospitality design. "Chaum is all about stepping out in terms of a different approach to medicine—one that is much more restorative than it is curative," says Ryan Stevens, principal and design director of KMD.

The $120 million, 200,000-square-foot Chaum Center spans five floors and includes a three-story health club and five-star restaurant, offering patients gathering places for social interaction and nutritional education. "Most everyone's reaction is, 'Wow—this is something really unique,'" Stevens explains. "It doesn't feel like just a medical center, and it's not just a spa that has doctors. This stands apart as something that bridges the best of modern medicine, traditional therapies and integrative treatment. Everyone gets that. And they see this as something that is truly new."

Central to Dr. Cha's philosophy is the aesthetic of the experience. Rather than replicating the confined spaces of a doctor's office or hospital, KMD created a futuristic-looking design with an emphasis on openness and an abundance of light—more aligned with a luxury hotel than a hospital. The building's entrance and circular escalator simultaneously radiate serenity and stimulating energy, heralding the innovative treatments and lavish amenities available inside.

The sundrenched indoor atrium that dominates the heart of the building is also perfectly in sync with Dr. Cha's lifestyle approach to medicine. As green and lush as an outdoor garden, it conjures images of a tranquil therapeutic spa rather than a medical center. The Chaum Center's five-floor layout includes concierge desks evocative of hip international hotels, luxuriously appointed therapy settings and expansive lounges inspired by five-star resorts. The designers obliterate the stereotypical notions of cramped waiting rooms with custom sofas, lighting and furniture inspired by upscale hospitality and residential pieces.

Though KMD champions Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design® (LEED) strategies for its U.S.-based health care clients, the concept is not yet applicable to any great extent in Korea, Stevens says. Nonetheless, the architects employed the same processes used in the U.S. for evaluating materials and the energy savings achieved. The KMD team was also very specific in terms of spa water processing, including the use of ultraviolet zappers so that potable water can be recycled in fountain elements.

All the carpets and a good majority of tile utilize recycled content. KMD specified only local or regional stone and non-protected wood species. "The photographs show a lot of wood surfaces, but the actual wood used is

literally paper thin," says Stevens, who is impressed with the veneering process used by Kukbo Design, a Korean company. "It's not seen much in the U.S.—the smallest bit of real wood you could ever imagine is ironed onto a recycled wood pulp substrate that can be manufactured with the grain of any wood species you want. When the paper is ironed on, the grain telegraphs through."

KMD's designers chose natural teak veneer for its warmth and organic appeal, and for the flexibility to envelope curved walls that continuously ebb and flow throughout the interiors. "Everything in the space has origins either in nature or the human body. The undulating walls have to do with reflections on water. There are ceiling forms that relate to clouds," Stevens says.

"Other elements in the design deal with the human anatomy—muscles and tissue, bone and so forth. Muscle tissue is softer and more elastic, and is represented by softer materials and fabrics. Bone is obviously hard and straight, represented by glass, tile and stone. When you design spas, people think just of nature, but when you think of what Dr. Cha is doing in terms of stem cell research … human anatomy, man and nature are really the same thing."

Perhaps the most intriguing visual example is the hub of "hives" or "cells" used for diagnostic testing. The rooms are literally octagonal cells, an architectural analogy to cell structures both in nature and the human body. The design of the examination pods reinforces Chaum's belief that health care outcomes will improve if it can change the way people view medical facilities.

Upon arrival on the second floor, members are greeted by a dedicated personal care manager and ushered to their examination hive for an initial exam. The hives are spacious and open, yet private to ensure that all tests and diagnoses are kept confidential. Contrary to current hospital practices and doctor visits, members are not led from room-to-room to be treated. Instead, all medical equipment and staff is brought in, providing an efficient, private and comfortable experience.

"One of Dr. Cha's mandates was to get people out of the mental framework they associate with medical services," Stevens says. "In the typical medical center, the poor patient has to do all the work. They go to one room and wait for the doctor, then to other rooms for various tests. The doctors, patients and equipment all use the same corridor because that is more convenient for the staff. This is very much about the patient and the patient or customer experience."

Stevens compares the experience to that of a hospitality setting: the customer is first, not the doctor. By design, there is a patient-side entrance to the examination cells and a different entrance for doctors and equipment. Passersby can't see through the glazed glass (which is colored in earthy tones of green, bronze or orange), but light emits into it.

Also hospitality-like is the deliberate scripting of the kinds of experiences clients encounter as they navigate the winding patient corridor, and the facility in general. "It's a journey idea; the space is sort of a labyrinth," Stevens says. "When you go through one door and out another, there is a different feeling. And as you move from one world to another, there's a suspension of disbelief. You get in, and you're in that world. The intent is to draw the medical experience back into the overall lifestyle concept."

The idea is to make health care more social and stimulating, as opposed to the current model which people approach with trepidation—and typically only when symptoms of disease are present. KMD Architects' design solution realizes Dr. Cha's vision of a center that people will want to visit as part of their everyday lives and where personalized medicine helps slow the aging process through the prevention of disease. "Dr. Cha came to us with a very clear vision of what he wanted to create: a medical environment like the world has never seen before," Stevens concludes. As CHA Health Systems and KMD work to adapt the concept for export to the U.S. this year, the world can expect even more innovation to come.

Carol Tisch is a freelance writer, editor and marketing consultant based in Sarasota, FL. She was formerly editor-in-chief of Shelter Interiors magazine and Home Furnishings News (HFN), and has developed communications programs for commercial and residential design industry clients. She can be reached at


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5670 Wilshire Blvd., Ste 760
Los Angeles, CA 90036
(323) 938-3211

Kwang-Sub Cha, MD, president
Mr. Young-il Choi, director of legal affairs


KMD Architects
222 Vallejo St
San Francisco, CA 94115
(415) 398-5191

Ryan Stevens, project principal
Rob Matthews, project principal
Dan Lam, project manager
Chuck Chuljoong Kwon, project architect,
project designer, planner
Omar Jimenez, designer


Kukbo Design Inc.
Miri Jang, designer

Samuel Fajner