BENTONVILLE -- Construction of a 154,000-square-foot medical school has begun on 14 acres just east of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville.
Leaders of the Alice L. Walton School of Medicine held a groundbreaking ceremony Thursday. Behind them, excavators and dump trucks moved massive amounts of dirt in preparation for the new facility.
The school, abbreviated AWSOM and pronounced "awesome" by its proponents, aims to create a clinical education where whole health practices are integrated into every facet of the environment, including the architecture.
Walmart heiress Alice Walton, the school's founder, spoke at the event about the institution's goal to provide a different approach to health care – "one that is proactive and connects patients' mental, physical, social and emotional health."
School leaders have said the curriculum will integrate art, architecture and surrounding natural features to grow students' powers of observation, encourage reflection and increase awareness of different perspectives.
Art can stimulate and motivate medical students and community members "in ways that we don't even know yet," according to Walton.
"I'm hoping that our new founding dean might consider all of our med students becoming museum guides," she said. "The one thing I've learned about museum guides is that they know how to look."
Arkansas-based architecture firm Polk Stanley Wilcox Architects is leading the building project, which designers said is simultaneously conceived as an extension of the art museum campus and the surrounding natural environment.
Wesley Walls, principal with the firm, said the site will "literally and philosophically embody the principles" of the school's approach to health.
"We're eager to witness how its innovative design will impact and equip future generations of health care professionals and the well-being of Arkansans," he said.
Designs for the building include four levels with learning halls, a public gallery, a library, clinical teaching spaces, administrative offices, a student lounge, a theater, and areas for recreation, wellness and parking, according to a school news release.
New York City landscape architecture firm OSD designed the facility's extensive outdoor features, including plazas and terraces, an amphitheater, a 2-acre rooftop garden, a teaching farm, outdoor healing gardens and woodland meditation gardens.
Simon David, founding principal and creative director with OSD, said designers want to respect and celebrate the beauty of the Ozarks while also appropriately situating the school's campus within the surrounding community.
From the east side of the campus, drivers on J Street and people on an adjacent community lawn will see a towering bluff-like structure, according to David.
From the west side, people approaching from Crystal Bridges will be able to walk up a steep incline to the garden on the building's roof, he said.
"It's almost like a building becomes a park," David said.
Gardens will populate the campus with native plants that have traditionally been used for medicinal purposes, according to David. Plants and building materials will all be chosen to make the facility more familiar to the Ozarks landscape, he said.