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A man-friendly Maggie’s: Newcastle Maggie's Centre by Cullinan Studio

A palette of ‘tough’ materials to help draw in male visitors was key to Cullinan Studio’s design for Newcastle Maggie’s Centre, writes Laura Mark. Photography by Paul Raftery

‘When I walk in here, I feel like I’m in my mother’s arms,’ said one cancer patient, describing the Cullinan Studio-designed Maggie’s Centre in Newcastle. It is the 12th Maggie’s Cancer Care Centre to be completed in the UK, one of a legacy of centres designed by architects such as Zaha Hadid, Richard Rogers, Richard Murphy and Rem Koolhaas. Conceived by Maggie Keswick Jencks before she died of cancer in 1995, the centres use architecture to bring hope to those suffering from cancer.

At 285m², Maggie’s Newcastle is one of the smaller centres. OMA’s in Gartnavel was 534m², Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners’ in London 370m², and CZWG’s in Nottingham 360m². Like other Maggie’s Centres, the interior of Cullinan’s building is designed to be home-like, an alternative to the clinical wards often encountered by those suffering from cancer. The building nestles within the large, almost forbidding, grounds of Newcastle’s Freeman Hospital. Situated on what was once a car park, the centre is close to the hospital’s existing cancer ward but far enough away to feel distinct from the clinical ambience of the hospital.

When I visited, it was busy, not just with cancer patients, but also their friends and families. The kitchen table, central to the Maggie’s Centre brief, was a hub of activity. This was Keswick Jenck’s idea - a place for people to come together regardless of their circumstances to chat over a cup of tea.

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In fact, Maggie’s Newcastle is one of the busiest yet, welcoming more than 5,000 people through its doors in its first four months, when the original estimate was for 5,000 in the first year. This level of popularity brings its challenges and has really tested the facilities and layout of the centre.

The building is entered through a discreet entrance within the Cor-ten facade. ‘This was designed as a fortified enclosure, protecting and separating the inner spaces,’ says Cullinan Studio director Johnny Winter. The concealed entrance is unexpected, but it works. Once you enter, the all-important kitchen table is visible through an internal glass window. Then the space opens up and light floods in.

There is clearly a degree of competitiveness between the heads of each centre, as I found when I bumped into Bernie Byrne, head of the Rogers-designed Maggie’s, during my tour. Byrne was critical of the Newcastle plan: ‘Mine has a kitchen right as you come through the main entrance door. It makes it easier to use than this one - easier to keep an eye on who is coming and going.

‘In this centre [as a member of staff] you would have to position yourself in the right place. You can see the door from the kitchen, but you would have to be in a particular seat. I like this one, though. It is very light and airy. The best thing about it is the garden. When I’ve seen photos of this building it looks like it is in an open space, but it is actually surrounded by other buildings but, once you’re inside, you don’t feel it. You see the gardens, rather than the buildings.’

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Cullinan Studio has orientated the building carefully. Its L-shaped plan forms a courtyard facing south-west to catch the sun. All the larger spaces: the meeting room, the library, smaller counselling rooms and the kitchen face out onto this space. It is these courtyard rooms which make this building: they offer a connection with nature while providing a buffer zone between the centre and the world outside. This is a building bounded by earth and hugged by landscaping - designed by Chelsea Flower Show Gold Medal winner Sarah Price - that creates a protective wall.

Some elements of the building are less successful. As centre head Karen Verrill points out, the mezzanine at the moment is unused. It contains a further library space with computer desks but additional seating is missing, so there is nowhere to sit if you are not at a computer, meaning people don’t linger, despite its vantage point providing views down to the ground floor. Verrill says this will be adjusted, with additional benching proposed. But, with such a large, central library with ample seating below, and little space for comfortable seating on the mezzanine, I wonder whether benches will make much of a difference.

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The mezzanine is accessed by a staircase off the library space below. Small seating areas within alcoves placed at intervals up the stairs offer a place to perch for those who can’t manage the whole flight in one go. This is thoughtful design and looks good, but in reality they are little used, their height, having to fit in with the stair flight, being either too low or too high to be comfortable. What the mezzanine does provide is access onto the building’s green roofs. These offer a place to sit, to exercise, to picnic or to play, surrounded by a perimeter beech hedge. Once this has become more established, the space will feel sheltered and private.

Key to Cullinan’s ambition was making the centre inviting to male visitors. Verrill says: ‘Cullinan wanted to create a manly centre. He didn’t want it to be too girly. That is what the concrete is about.’ Internally, fair-faced concrete walls are juxtaposed with softer timber edges while outside, Cor-ten cladding panels complete the ‘manly’ aesthetic. The rooftop outdoor gym was also included to attract male visitors. The stratagem seems to have worked: while visits from men to Maggie’s Centres overall stand at 34 per cent of the total, at Maggie’s Newcastle 45 per cent of the total visits are from men.

The Maggie’s programme has been influential in challenging the architecture of care. Speaking at an AJ100 Breakfast Club, Laura Lee, chief executive of Maggie’s, said: ‘The separation from main hospital buildings allowed the structures to challenge conventional approaches to designing oncological care environments.’ This continues to be seen in each new centre. Maggie’s Newcastle feels nurturing. It is a delight to be in, offering a connection with nature and the outdoors so often lacking in typical hospitals.

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