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A home from home: Maggie’s West London revisited

Footprint revisit: Maggie’s West London excels at providing comfort and sanctuary, writes Amanda Birch. Photography by Ben Blossom

Approaching Maggie’s West London on foot can be precarious. It shares its grounds with Charing Cross Hospital, which means visitors must negotiate that institution’s steady stream of cars, motorbikes and ambulances to reach the front door of the cancer drop-in centre. Yet entering this Maggie’s feels like you have stepped into CS Lewis’s magical kingdom of Narnia.
A meandering path weaves its way around mature plane trees, mushroom stools and an exquisitely planted landscape towards the glowing orange beacon. A ‘terracotta’ wall shields visitors from the Fulham Palace Road and the contrast between the noisy, urban chaos and the soothing garden is profound.

It is six years since this £2 million Stirling Prize-winner (2009) designed by Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners (RSHP) opened, and the day of my visit is a good one. The weather is fine, the courtyard garden by designer Dan Pearson has matured beautifully and the magnolia trees along the building’s south facade are in bloom.

Including this one, there are now 17 Maggie’s Centres across the UK and abroad and eight more in the pipeline. Incredibly successful, they offer free, practical, emotional and social support to people with cancer and their families and friends. A range of free activities is available throughout the week.

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Maggie’s West London is one of the best-attended. It received 19,500 visitors last year and on average 80 people visit each weekday. Given these numbers, the garden is in exceptionally good shape. Its maintenance is overseen by Rosemary Creaser, a therapeutic horticulturalist, who visits once a month in winter and twice in summer. Creaser is assisted by volunteers, some of whom have cancer, and they explore the medicinal value of the garden’s herbs as part of their recovery programme.

The garden is fully accessible to the public both day and night. I was therefore surprised to learn that neither the garden nor building has ever been vandalised, especially as the two-storey centre is so eye-catching. The only unwelcome episode involved some teenagers snapping one of the magnolia trees.

Bernie Byrne, the centre’s head, suggests this lack of unruly behaviour may be attributed to an inherent respect the public have for what the centre does. The building itself is secured by a glass gate that is locked at night and stops people from entering the passage that leads to the entrance.

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A large opening on the south facade provides the first glimpse into the building. RHSP partner Ivan Harbour explains that this window and the passage that leads to the ‘front door’ help visitors prepare themselves before entering the building by deliberately slowing them down. The passage or loggia ‘works like a decompression chamber,’ says Harbour. It’s true. >> Walking along the loggia is very calming and the warm orange walls focus the mind.

Opposite the glazed front door a translucent glass window in the perimeter wall reveals a silhouette of traffic moving along the Fulham Palace Road, a reassuring reminder of the daily routine of life.

Crossing the threshold into the building feels like entering someone’s home, albeit a very modern and stylish one. This sensation is intensified when I’m offered a cup of tea in a china mug. Daylight floods in from a double-height curtain wall to one side, enabling visitors to contemplate the garden beyond. Signage is notably absent - an element of the Maggie’s brief that further contributes to the non-institutional feel. A clerestory above the timber partitioning cleverly draws in more daylight. This comforting sanctuary contrasts markedly with the stressful, clinical hospital environment nearby.

Of the buildings I’ve visited for the Footprint revisit series, most leave their electric lighting on, and Maggie’s is no exception. Byrne explains that both the overhead and task lighting are often left on even when there is sufficient daylight, because it is comforting to anxious visitors. The sophisticated Lutron Electronics lighting relies on an electronic box - which is currently broken and overridden by a temporary system - to create different lighting scenes. This means that the lighting is pre-set to create different moods. For example, an art therapy class would require bright lighting, while a relaxation class would use a softer, dimmer light. Byrne says they are happy with the system, but are in the process of finding a simpler method of operation.

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Harbour describes the 370m² building’s plan as simple, composed of a concrete grid and soffit with the spaces divided into four concrete structures with a roof that floats overhead. The building’s flexibility is best demonstrated by the various rooms that lead off the central space. The rooms range in mood from private, cocoon-like spaces for one-to-one counselling to larger, conventional sitting-rooms which are used for Tai Chi, and have either full-height glass windows or glass doors leading to courtyards. Sliding partitions in some allow spaces to be combined when necessary.

The building is pristine throughout, with no threadbare rugs or scuff marks on the walls. One of the larger rooms had just been used for art therapy and didn’t have a drop of paint anywhere. Byrne notes that to date, they haven’t repainted any walls, replaced furniture or made any other interventions.

One significant alteration from the original brief is a change of use of the upper level, which had been intended for offices. Before the building was occupied, alternative premises were found nearby and most of the team relocated. Accessed by a prominent stair ascending from near the entrance, upstairs feels more open than downstairs, mainly due to low-level partitioning and glazing that runs around the perimeter, offering splendid views. Well-maintained roof terraces can be accessed from upstairs, but it is unlikely many visitors use them, even in warmer weather. I can see why. Of the visitors I talked to, they thought the upper level was ‘out of bounds’, just as you wouldn’t venture upstairs, unless invited, in someone’s home.

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Maggie’s West London is naturally ventilated, relying on doors and windows being opened to allow for cross-ventilation in summer. Heat is provided by underfloor heating via a domestic condensing boiler and trench heaters built into the furniture on the first floor. The temperature felt too warm in places, but Byrne explains that the thermostat can be adjusted, and that many visitors prefer the centre warm as they often feel cold when undergoing treatment.

For a building surrounded by busy roads, Maggie’s West London is remarkably peaceful. The occasional motorbike or siren could be heard, but this wasn’t distracting. It would have been useful, however, to hear what the acoustics were like on a busier day. Julie Parish, the art therapist, says there were plans to hold art therapy groups upstairs because of the quality of light, but it wasn’t considered practical due to issues of privacy, the carpeted floors and lack of a sink.

Maggie’s West London may not incorporate sophisticated sustainable measures, but its deft design and ingenious connections between outside and inside have created a welcoming and serene haven. Byrne has embraced the building’s idiosyncrasies and understands this centre. There are aspects that don’t work so well, such as the lighting or its under-utilised upper floor, and there is insufficient storage; but the proof of any good building is the impact it has on its users. The high visitor numbers, popularity of its activities and its positive influence on behaviour are clear signs of the building’s enduring success.

Bernie Byrne, centre head, Maggie’s west London

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I have a long history with Maggie’s. I knew Maggie Keswick Jencks and was one of the ward nurses that looked after her in Edinburgh. I was involved in the design of this centre and found the process hugely insightful. I’m passionate about the building and I’ve learnt about the power of architecture and what a well-designed building can do. For example, a woman came in recently really angry, and she reached the kitchen and immediately calmed down. Later she said she found it hard to be angry because the building wasn’t what she expected. Children instinctively pick up on the feelings of calmness and friendliness here. Some have called the centre, the ‘chill-out building’. Aspects of the architecture are designed to produce a feeling of containment, and every room has a sense of contained space, so people feel protected.

Chris Watson, property director, Maggie’s west London

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I’m based in an office nearby and I have 16 Maggie’s Centres to maintain and eight more in design. Of these eight, three are currently in construction. The services in this building have worked very well and its maintenance isn’t labour-intensive at all. We have invested very heavily in this building and the quality of the finishes is very robust - so robust, that I would suggest this building has a 100-year life. However, the lighting system is one of the few areas of the building that has a level of sophistication and the electronic box has proven to be unreliable. It creates different lighting moods using pre-set combinations of lighting and it’s hard to operate. At the moment, we have a system that’s overriding it, but it’s temporary. We are quite happy with the lighting modes, but I would like a simpler way of creating those scenes.

Yuriko Hodge, visitor to Maggie’s west London

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I have cancer of the throat and six years ago I was told that a Maggie’s Centre was opening. I was so desperate to use the facility that even before it opened I went there and Bernie [the head of the centre] let me in. I come here on Fridays for an art therapy class and it’s very helpful to me.

The first time I came here, my mind was full of worries and once I was in the building I felt calm. When I saw all the natural daylight and the sliding doors, it reminded me of my home in Japan. The fully glazed doors and windows allow me to see the greenery outside, and I feel as if I’m in the country. I also like the narrow passageway before you enter the front door: it allows me to think while I’m walking. On the negative side, we are told we can use the roof garden but I don’t feel comfortable using it because it feels like an office. But the centre is like a home; I feel good when I’m here and when I leave I always feel happy.

Julie Parish, art therapist, Maggie’s west London

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It was very unusual to come here at first because I was used to a clinical, hospital environment. Maggie’s is very light and airy and much better suited to art therapy. The attendance has grown so much I now run two groups, with 20 people in each. About 550 people attended art therapy groups last year. I run an open studio group and I set it up with the same format of materials, seating and easels. The only downside of the space, which is called the Large Room, is keeping it clean: it’s difficult to contain the mess and there is no sink. Storage could have been better thought-through, as the cupboards are full.

The building is an escape for people. They often come in from the hospital between blood tests and chemotherapy and it provides a calming space. It’s almost as if they can ‘breathe again’. You see them visibly relax into the building.

Nicolaas Aukes, visitor to Maggie’s west London

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I’ve been coming here for the past four years. I knew about Maggie’s because my other half is an architect. I come every Friday to do the expressive art therapy. This is a very good building but has a few drawbacks. For example, the toilet tap doesn’t do what you think it would and some of the chairs are slightly uncomfortable. Also, the rooms weren’t planned to accommodate artworks. You’re limited to how much art you can do and you can’t make a lot of mess, but the rooms are good for talks and lectures. I find the temperature comfortable because I’m very sensitive to the cold due to my condition. I find the wood fire welcoming, there is plenty of light and I admire the garden and its smells. Overall I think the building is fantastic and I’m in awe of it. The building almost feels like coming home and I’m amazed at how many people walk through the door.

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