Snøhetta’s Aberdeen Maggie’s Centre succeeds despite, rather than because of, its clashing forms and materials, writes Penny Lewis. Photography by Philip Vile
Maggie’s Centres are designed by high-profile and well-established architects, often by practices in which the partners had a personal relationship with the charity’s founder, the late Maggie Keswick Jencks (1941-1945), or are part of the peer group of her husband Charles, the landscape architect and theorist. But for Norwegian practice Snøhetta, the commission arrived out of the blue. According to Charles Jencks, Maggie’s team has an ongoing shortlist of preferred practices and Snøhetta was added to the list after Jencks had visited the practice’s competition-winning Alexandria Library in Egypt.
It was the ‘local’ factor that won Snøhetta this commission. ‘We like to use local practices; we looked at the cheapest flights to Aberdeen from a variety of places and discovered Oslo was actually local,’ recalls Jencks. As if to underpin this special Scottish-Nordic relationship, HM the Queen of Norway (alongside her friend and the charity’s patron, HRH the Duchess of Cornwall, known in Scotland as the Duchess of Rothesay) opened the new Aberdeen Centre.
Sitting on the edge of the kitchen table at the brand new Maggie’s, Charles Jencks is smiling as he listens into a conversation between friends on the other side of the lobby. He’s discovered that the dome-like roof acts as a whispering gallery - but, because it’s a complex geometry, the conversation travels in just one direction. Jencks is excited; these are the kind of unexpected joys that are created when you play with form. It’s hard not to share his enthusiasm. The overarching roof, with its circular roof lights, gives this building a highly sculptural, other-worldly quality. As the light changes, the skylights cast beautiful light patterns across the ceiling. There are aspects of the concrete work that are reminiscent of Niemeyer’s concrete shells and, at moments, Lubetkin’s Penguin Pool.
The modest building consists of a shell-like form roughly triangular in plan and a series of fairly intimate spaces organised in a spiral around a central timber core, which supports a mezzanine level. As a result, you have one single space created by the concrete shell and numerous other spaces (internal and external) sculpted from and around the shell form.
Snøhetta says it didn’t design the building as an object but developed the form from a discussion with the client about the variety of internal spaces that were needed. However, the new centre’s pebble-like form certainly marks its territory and proclaims to the rest of the unpromising patchwork of parking and building blocks at the Foresterhill campus and to the surrounding granite bungalows the message: ‘this is not an institutional building’. Like Zaha Hadid’s Kirkcaldy centre and Page\Park Architects’ Inverness project, the Aberdeen centre is designed as a pavilion in a garden setting, making good use of the fact that it sits next to the helipad and is therefore, and will always be, afforded a large green front lawn and a certain amount of park-like breathing space.
Making good architecture is part of Maggie’s Cancer Care Centre’s ethos; it is also part of the fundraising strategy and it is central to the running of the charity that the buildings should be uplifting and welcoming.
At a conceptual level, in terms of its immediate visual impact and sense of drama, this building is a success. The fact that it is already known as the Pebble (or the Teletubby House) seems to confirm Jenck’s thesis about the importance of publicly adopted metaphors in architecture.
Snøhetta partner Robert Greenwood argues that there is really just one measure of success for this building and that is whether people want to visit it and feel comfortable being there. There can be little doubt that the Maggie’s charity staff will inhabit the space in the comfortable and elegant way to which we have become accustomed and that people will enjoy their visits to the centre. However, as a piece of architecture, the building is slightly uncomfortable.
Greenwood argues that the contrast between the soft form and hard material of the shell and the sharp forms and soft timber of the box that sits within it is part of the building’s appeal. But the relationship between the shell and the box has not been handled with the same care and attention that we might we have come to expect, based on previous Maggie’s projects like OMA’s at Gartnavel.
The funding for the centre was raised in record time, thanks to local campaigners and the Elizabeth Montgomerie Foundation, founded by golfer Colin Montgomerie in memory of his mother. Local contractors and professionals supplied services, materials and equipment free of charge. Maggie’s calculates that this saved the charity about £400,000. Under the circumstances, it seems slightly mealy-mouthed to raise questions about the quality of the building finishes, but the fact that the two contradictory forms seem to clash, rather than complement each other, is unavoidable.
The last time I visited the centre, back in spring, the concrete contractors were working away at the shell to ensure they had all of the lines right. The shell was formed in a process that began with the setting-out of the reinforcement bars (29km of bar was used to form the shell). Once the form was fixed, the concrete contractors, who are more often involved in civil engineering tunnelling projects, sprayed 600 tonnes of concrete onto the reinforcement from the outside, using high pressure hoses. Once the outer shell was in place, 230mm-thick insulation was moulded by hand to the interior face of the building. Contractor Robertsons, better known for its work on large-scale PFI projects, has clearly learnt a great deal from building this modest but complex building. However, it’s hard to avoid the fact that Maggie’s Aberdeen raises the question about the mismatch between the digital technology of the architects’ studio and what we are capable of producing in the construction industry in Scotland. Greenwood recognises there may indeed be a mismatch, but is optimistic.
He says: ‘You may have seen the Reindeer Pavilion we made in Norway out of wood. It’s made without any drawings - it’s made with computer files. The computer files feed into a machine and the machine makes the interior. Maggie’s is a little bit more analogue - they had sticks and they had heights - but it could have been done by GPS. You are getting new connections in the building industry that you didn’t know about five years ago. They might make the future brighter. There is a time lag, of course, but things are changing.’
Penny Lewis is a lecturer at the Scott Sutherland School of Architecture
Parametric pebble: Aberdeen Maggie's Centre by Snøhetta