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Maggie's Cancer Caring Centre, Cheltenham, by MJP Architects

MJP Architects’ Maggie’s centre in Cheltenham showcases Richard MacCormac’s rich and individual mix of ideas, writes Felix Mara. Photography by Peter Durant

Denys Lasdun once said it’s easy to design small buildings. But the brief for MJP Architects’ 170m² Maggie’s Centre in Cheltenham, which opened in September, though deliberately non-prescriptive and requiring no clinical facilities, is implicitly complex. MJP founder Richard MacCormac - a friend of the centre’s namesake, Maggie Keswick Jencks - was touched by the disease when his partner, interiors expert Jocasta Innes, survived throat cancer.

Maggie’s Cheltenham, commissioned in 2003, is tightly focussed on its brief. ‘I’m not a calm person, but I’m very good at architectural calm’, says MacCormac. But he also uses the vehicle of a small building with a generous budget to explore certain preoccupations that are relevant to the brief, such as the idea of a building within a building, the architectural possibilities of thick walls, the notion of the building as a ship and, above all, an attention to detailed craftsmanship that he describes as ‘self-imposed complexity’.

MacCormac also brings certain influences to the table. Having set up his practice when he qualified in 1969, he had no principal mentor. Instead, he has multiple influences, including his teachers at the Cambridge School of Architecture, Leslie Martin, Lionel March and Colin Rowe. He belongs to a generation that stood in the shadow of the 20th century’s great architects; Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies van der Rohe, Alvar Aalto and Louis Kahn. Along with John Soane, they are constant references in his work. MacCormac is a continuity man, who connects us with these influences.

In an age of over-specialisation in architecture, driven by the complexity of construction, building performance and procurement, he recalls an era when the architect was a ‘renaissance man’. McCormac is a designer and practitioner, with keen interests in planning, detail and painting, and he also writes about these subjects with exceptional lucidity and with human interest as
a core principle.

MacCormac describes the small site, a short walk from Cheltenham General Hospital’s oncology department, as ‘a place apart’. The main volume, a linear single-story building aligned with the River Chelt, nestles against the lodge of a former Victorian bathhouse. Diminutive pods and external spaces complete this cluster of buildings, articulated in a Soanean manner by glazed links - an urban composition in miniature.

This cluster of buildings is an urban composition in miniature


The site is set back from the road and is approached either from a car park or along a path, that winds though a garden designed by Christine Facer Hoffman. According to Hoffman, the velvety folds in its lawn symbolise cancer’s ups and downs and the motif of the sigmoid curve, employed as a tool in cancer treatment, is used here as a metaphor for life.

You approach the entrance through a deep trellised screen and gate; something that tried to look cool or iconic might have seemed comical next to the gingerbread-house lodge. If you dismiss the trellis’s square grid as a MacCormac trademark that belongs to another era, you’ll be in for some surprises. MacCormac is a past master of this type of drama. He anticipates patients proceeding further every time they visit: first as far as the office, then venturing into the main space and finally exploring the yoga room beyond and the pods. These circular retreats are described by acCormac as ‘slightly Hobbit-like’.

The glass-roofed entrance lobby has no institutionalising reception area and opens onto the principal space, a long communal area and dining room with a large open kitchen at its west end and a zone that can be used for smaller group activities, to the east. With a glazed inglenook that, in conjunction with hinged oak screens, demarcates this from the main communal area, MacCormac returns to his exploration of the idea of a building within a building, seen at the chapel at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge.

This space has a vigorous structural parti, with long-span beams on its main axis, supported by eight Miesian cruciform columns. Concealed steel joists cantilever from these beams, >> enabling the shallow roof to sail over the continuous clerestory glazing, like Wright’s Usonian houses, another influence. The overhanging soffit and the wide sill below reflect light into the space. There are occasional moments of direct overhead and sideways-cast daylight but, contradicting the brief, MacCormac wanted users to enjoy subtle, reflected daylight, rather than being ‘blasted by the sky’.

The circular retreats are described as ‘Hobbit-like’


The horizontal windows, with heads below eye level, provide views and additional reflected light that interacts with the warm, reflective gold and pink paint finishes, chosen in consultation with Jocasta Innes. At one point during my visit, the reflected daylight is dramatically transformed as a cloud passes overhead.

This space’s horizontality is countered by vertical elements such as windows and doorways. Its strong geometry is balanced by meticulous attention to detail that conveys human scale, helping users to engage with the building. ‘In a way the building is a big piece of furniture with a roof on top’, says MacCormac. French philosopher Gaston Bachelard’s musings on corners, shelves, nests, drawers and the idea of the home as a refuge from the world inspired his pursuit of intimacy. ‘The test of what we’re trying to do is whether a cat would be comfortable’, he adds.

There’s enough detail here for a building 20 times its size. ‘You could never do this in an NHS project’, says MacCormac. He speculates that a value-engineered version would be stripped of everything that couldn’t be accounted for, with additional columns, no clerestory and flush doors instead of bespoke hinged oak panels. Architecture students are often told not to cram too many ideas into a single building and to save some for other projects.

This is a safe principle for success and can help designers to unravel knots by conceding that something has to go. But if one throws more ingredients into the mix, knowing that the process of integration will be more arduous and protracted, the stakes are higher. Many of the pinnacles of architectural expression, for example classical Greek temples, distil ingredients from disparate sources.

Alan Berman of Berman Guedes Stretton once said to a student, ‘Everyone should be able to have their cake and eat it.’ This is what MacCormac has achieved at Maggie’s. While his sources are intact and in counterpoint, rather than blended, his enjoyment of this inclusive process infuses the building with life, but is entirely consistent. Charles Jencks, who has advocated a rich architecture that he describes as ‘multivalent’, must be pleased with the result.


What are Maggie’s centres?

‘During a consultation, people often hear little of what the doctor says after the word “cancer”’, says Laura Lee, chief executive of Maggie’s Cancer Caring Centres. These centres exist to assist with the anxiety that goes with the disease, complementing the sometimes abrasive and alienating environment of NHS oncology wards. They are named after Maggie Keswick Jencks who, as a cancer patient, identified a need for small care centres to help people suffering from the disease to orientate themselves, address practicalities, reflect and understand their condition. After her death in 1995, her husband, the architecture writer Charles Jencks, and others developed the programme to build centres funded by donations, serving NHS hospitals. Some were designed by well-known architect-friends of the Jencks and MJP Architects’ Maggie’s in Cheltenham, which opened in September, is the seventh centre to be completed.


The other completed centres are: Edinburgh, by Richard Murphy (1996) (AJ 20.09.01); Glasgow, by Page\Park (2002) (AJ 25.09.03); Dundee. by Frank Gehry (2003) (AJ 25.09.03); Kircaldy, by Zaha Hadid (2005); Inverness, by Page\Park (2006); London, by Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners (2008) (AJ 15.10.09); Glasgow, OMA (under construction)


Credits

Start on site September 2009
Contract duration 12 months
Form of contract JCY SBC 05 without quantities
Gross internal area 100m
Total cost £1.6 million
Client Maggie’s Centres
Architect MJP Architects
Structural engineer Price & Myers
M&E consultant KJ Tait
Quantity surveyor Turner and Townsend Cost Management
Main contractor Day Building
Landscape architect Facerhoffman Landscape Design
Lighting consultant FOTO MA


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