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Framework for Hope

She reimagined a surgery center for Ugandan patients

When Frances Halsband ’65 was at Swarthmore, she didn’t participate in Vietnam War protests on campus.

Instead, she was drawn to what she saw as the energy and focus of architecture students — and wanted to join them.

“I’m more of a revolutionary who works from within,” she says. “That’s how I operate.”

The art history major went on to earn a master’s in architecture from Columbia University, and in 1972, she co-founded an architectural firm with her husband, Robert Kliment, focused primarily on projects for cultural and educational institutions.

That is, until 2014, when a friend proposed a project that spoke to Halsband’s quiet sense of social responsibility: a surgical center in Kyabirwa, Uganda.

Michael Marin, chief surgeon at Mount Sinai Health System, wanted Halsband’s firm to take on his hospital’s project, 7,084 miles from
her New York City office. 

She told him they had never ventured into health care design.
He said that was precisely why he wanted to work with them. 

Kyabirwa lacks reliable transportation, water, and electrical infrastructure, so the project’s advancement required a complete reimagining of the surgical center. The Mount Sinai team rethought surgery, breaking it down into basic elements that made simple operations possible. Halsband’s team, likewise, had to create an innovative approach to design. 

“We thought we were just building a building,” Halsband says, “but we were actually learning how to simplify a whole architectural process.” 

A key aspect of the eventual design was a solar-panel canopy that imitated the shade-giving and sun-absorbing qualities of the local banana leaf. 

“When I was a child, I used to go to the Bronx Botanical Garden and smoke cigarettes in the banana house,” Halsband says with a laugh. “So I knew all about banana trees.”

From that piece of inspiration sprang a revolutionized architectural concept, which opened to patients in 2019.

“The design that Frances created has fit into the community and into the environment so seamlessly, yet it is clearly and unquestionably identifiable as a very special place,” says Marin. “The people who work there feel very grateful and honored to be part of that, to be working there.”

Even though Halsband couldn’t travel to Uganda during her planning, she recognized the need to involve the local community — from incorporating local brick-making techniques and using a nearby factory to manufacture the materials, to having an on-site coordinator organize local workers and teach them construction skills to carry out the design. 

“We needed to do something that they would feel at home in,” she explains, “especially because they’re bringing sick relatives to this place.”

Halsband has high hopes for the facility — and for the potential to create similar facilities worldwide. 

Meanwhile, she has focused on another socially conscious project: changing the American Institute of Architects’ code of ethics. 

This activism began against the backdrop of the #MeToo movement. While guest-lecturing architecture courses at Yale and the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Halsband noticed her students were asking questions about sexual harassment allegations in the industry. Almost all of them wanted to know what the AIA was doing in response.  

Driven by these concerns, Halsband started a petition among AIA Fellows, spurring the professional group to adopt an anti-harassment and equity statement.

While Halsband may not have absorbed Swarthmore’s anti-war fervor in the ’60s, she now sees how her work unwittingly developed its own revolutionary spirit and global awareness.

“You can’t help it. You feel like you have to do some good,” Halsband reflects, grinning. “It gets to you.”