Maggie’s Centres

Edwin Heathcote

For most of the history of civilisation, there was no separation between architecture and well-being, from Vitruvius to Vastu, building and health were understood as integral.  At some point in the Enlightenment project that understanding faded away and contemporary buildings for healthcare have become very specific, specialised and particular, parting ways from the architecture of the everyday.

Charles and Maggie Jencks’ notion was to recombine an understanding of an architecture of good health with urbanism, landscape and gardens to create what Jencks referred to as an architecture of hybridity.  The Maggie’s Centres, which accommodate a blend of highly personal and clinical advice for cancer patients and their families, community care, socialisation or solitude, domesticity and a kind of reverence for architecture itself as a medium, are the outcome of those ideas.  They are a hybrid of chapel, social centre, living room, schoolroom, yoga space, studio, kitchen and gallery.  They somehow embody all these aspects of civilised well-being for those with cancer but they are determinedly not themselves clinical buildings.  Placed in the grounds of (usually huge) hospitals they are instead a kind of alternative to the anonymity of clinical design.  They provide what hospitals, because of demands on efficiency, hygiene and culture are unable to, retreat and relaxation and a sense of domestic normality away from the medical machine.  In fact, they owe their genesis to the spatial conditions of the hospital in which Maggie Jencks was diagnosed with cancer, the banality and alienation of a medicalised architecture.  It was conceived as an antidote to what had become a codified language of impersonal, late modernist healthcare architecture which was, perhaps inevitably, more about the process than the person.  The question the Jenckses posed was how else might it be done?

From the repurposing of a small stable building in Edinburgh in 1996 (a year after Maggie herself had died), the programme grew into what is one of the most remarkable collections of buildings to be found anywhere and which encompasses works by Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Rem Koolhaas, Richard Rogers, Norman Foster and dozens of others.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the architecture programme has been the variety and difference it has provoked from what is famously one of the most detailed and admired architectural briefs.  At the heart of that brief is a notion of comfort and familiarity, the kitchen table, that most hospitable and domestic of elements.  Everything else spins off that.  There is no reception desk, no sense of the institutional, no waiting rooms or formal spatial hierarchy.

Frank Gehry was the first of the major starchitects to have a go and his centre in Dundee with its tower and crumpled roof makes an intriguing statement somewhere between the architect’s scrappy, provocative California private houses and his more monumental Bilbao phase. It showed that the Maggie’s Centres could create a path between the language of global cultural architecture and the more relatable and accessible scale of the domestic and the personal. The same is true of Zaha Hadid’s centre in Fife, a building which appears formal, sculptural and cold, executed in an unwelcoming black and white and covered in black asphalt but which transpires to give a cool and comforting embrace and, moreover, uses architecture to challenge the senses.

This is the curious paradox of the Maggie’s Centres.  The ones that work best are both somehow known and comfortable but also provocative, deliberately revelling in the power of architecture to knock a person out of the everyday rhythm.  The buildings encourage a critical engagement with space and form, with material and culture.  They are not aimed at us but at everybody else and they bring high architecture to an often desperate setting.  For a moment they have the power to take our minds off the suffering or the ennui of treatment, cancer, the frailty of the body and the inexorability of the process.

Three centres in Britain’s former industrial north serve to show quite how this curious hybrid works, how a building by a big-name designer can be integrated into a broader urban and healthcare context and create a moment of eye-widening wonder.  Norman Foster’s design at the Christie in Manchester, in the suburban streets near where Foster himself grew up, presents a flashback to that childhood, inspired by aeronautics and the engineering of aeroplanes but grounded by another allusion of greenhouses and the earth.  As a boy Foster was obsessed with model aeroplanes, as an adult he became a keen pilot.  Asked to pick his favourite building for the BBC he chose a Boeing 747.  That enduring fascination was given full reign here in a timber and glass structure which seems to sprout wings and terminates in a fragmented nosecone.  A long, low building, it sits somewhere between a stripped-down glider and a homage to the epic British engineering traditions of the Crystal Palace or the nineteenth century station.  Inside it is as much fuselage as room, a single long space with rooms situated off it and which culminates in the crystalline greenhouse.  It seems to contain a kind of nostalgia, a reduction and compression of the passions of a long career into an intensely personal and domestically-scaled building.

Thomas Heatherwick’s Maggie’s Centre for Leeds is, in its own way, defined by timber struts and a kind of aerodynamic sweep, different in form to Foster’s but not without similarity in conception.  The more organic plan form, based around clusters of structure with terraces stretched between them, creates a series of structural ‘trees’.  If Foster bookended his plan with greenhouses at either end, Heatherwick, in his characteristic style, seeks to cover the whole thing in foliage, to create a very literal green building.  But there is another centre in England’s north, a tram ride away from Manchester, in Oldham.  One of the most remarkable but also underrated of the centres it was designed by architects dRMM.  A seemingly straightforward wooden box elevated above the ground to accommodate the sloping landscape and let the earth run beneath it, the interior is a revelation.  Its heart (literally a vaguely heart-shaped hole) is cut out for the sake of a tree which rises through it and the glazed walls bring light deep into its centre.  It is an extraordinarily sunny building, golden reflections radiating across the bright yellow floor.  The Oldham centre in turn recalls Rem Koolhaas’s design for Glasgow, another building with an atrium and a garden at its centre and a surprisingly comfortable and comforting centre without any of the architectural acrobatics or provocations you might imagine.  Yet it is still a striking space, with hints of Mies and perhaps even Bo Bardi.

One further centre, designed by Steven Holl, begins to delineate another direction where the centre is not conceived as a discrete building but one inserted into a more historic context.  Set into the fabric of Britain’s oldest hospital, St Bartholomew’s, Holl’s centre presents itself as a kind of translucent paper lantern, its structural striations picking up the stone courses of the historic building.  Its interior is formed of bamboo and is illuminated by the pearly white of the diffuse light filtering through the facade, a surprisingly warm embrace from what appears a very cool building.

Between them they demonstrate the capacity of this seemingly unassuming brief to accommodate an incredible diversity of design and approach and the capacity of the biggest name architects to reduce their global gaze once more to the scale of the individual.

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