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    Cancer centres find hope in architecture

    Geraldine Chua

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    Maggie’s Edinburgh by Richard Murphy

    The first Maggie’s Centre opened in Edinburgh in 1996. Originally a stable block behind the Western General Hospital, the centre had been converted into a building full of life and colour. Natural light is found in abundance, and the spaces are flexible, broken up by sliding doors.

    Designed by Richard Murphy Architects, the project was dreamed up and co-founded by Maggie Keswick Jencks—a designer, artist and writer who, just three years prior, had learned in a “bleak” and “miserable” hospital room that her breast cancer had returned.

    “Having to digest the information about treatment and prognosis was inherently hard,” Maggie’s doctor, Professor Bob Leonard, says “but [it was] made substantially worse by having nowhere for Maggie to go and collect her thoughts…”

    Maggie lived for another 18 months after the news, defying the odds. During that period, she developed a new approach to cancer care—one that involved the creation of welcoming places near hospitals that offered patients information, psychological support, nutrition advice, exercise and relaxation therapies. The idea was that place and space could make a significant difference to how people felt.

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    Maggie’s Barts by Steven Holl.

    “The purpose of Maggie’s is to help people who are feeling as if they have been kicked in the stomach by a cancer diagnosis get on with their lives again. The buildings set the scene for them to do just that,” Marcia Blakenham, Maggie’s Centre’s CEO, writes.

    “A building has done a good job if it even lifts your spirits for a brief moment. If it creates spaces which make it easier to be with other people, by creating a comfortable balance between public and private, which make you feel safe but at the same time stimulate your imagination without your even noticing that such a thing is going on, then it has done even more.

    “The Maggie’s architectural brief is a demanding one. We have learned to be more ambitious about what we ask for. We want more than functional spaces. A building which has quality makes you feel valued. We believe that kindling curiosity and imagination is fundamental to feeling alive, and we want this spirit embodied in our centres. We choose architects who have the imagination, the confidence, the ability and the understanding to respond to such a brief.”

    Today, there are 19 Maggie’s Centres around the world, designed by some of the most notable names in architecture—from Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid and Snøhetta, to Richard Rogers, Rem Koolhaas and most recently announced, Daniel Libeskind. Each offers a flexible yet homely environment, including open spaces where patients can gather in groups, private rooms for one-on-one consultations, and an abundance of access to the outdoors.

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    Maggie’s Manchester by Foster + Partners

    Despite the similarities, however, each centre is also different—sometimes dramatically so. Zaha Hadid’s design for a building in Fife seemingly “erupts out of the car park”. Meanwhile, a 2005 project in Iverness designed by Page\Park and Maggie’s husband, Charles Jencks, was inspired by mitosis, the division of cells, and spotlights a symbiotic relationship between building and landscape.

    One of the organisation’s more recent additions is a centre in Oldham, bearing the title of the first engineered hardwood building in the world. The one-storey building by dRMM is clad in corrugated, thermally treated tulipwood, which has also been worked into the cross laminated timber used to create the main load-bearing structure.

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    Maggie’s Oldham. Photography by Alex de Rijke

    The timber is fine, with a variegated finish, bringing beauty into the construction. Ensuring no waste, the slatted ceiling features wood left over from the CLT fabrication process.

    “In wood there is hope and warmth,” dRMM says. “Its use at Maggie’s Oldham is part of a bigger design intention to reverse the norms of hospital architecture, where institutionalised environments can leave patients dispirited.”

    “We have considered the use of wood at every opportunity. As those undergoing chemotherapy sometimes feel pain on touching cold objects, oak rather than metal door handles have been used. Wood fibre insulation ensures a breathable, healthy environment whilst the huge window frames are American white oak. Externally the building is draped in custom-fluted, thermally modified tulipwood, like a surreal theatrical curtain.”

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    Photography by Jasmin Sohi

    Steel legs support the building over a garden, which flows into a walled and secluded woodland sanctuary. According to the Centre, garden designer Rupert Muldoon drew inspiration from the Pennines Hills surrounding the site to create a landscape that is simultaneously wild and ornamental. A greenhouse and potted herb garden offer a more social setting, with the opportunity for visitors to participate in hands-on activities here.

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    Photography by Tony Barwell.

    As Charles Jencks once explained, “a placebo is a phoney cure that works”.

    “You can imagine all sorts of ways in which architecture adds to the placebo effect.”

    Uplifting and at times surprising, Maggie’s Centre demonstrates what architecture in health—and of health—should look like.

    All images courtesy of Maggie’s Centres, Richard Murphy, Steven Holl, Foster + Partners and dRMM.

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