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Comfort zone

building study

Gehry & Partners and local practice James F Stephen have come together on the latest Maggie's Centre in Dundee, which opens today.While continuing Maggie's homely, non-institutional cancer support tradition, it is unmistakably a Gehry building

Frank Gehry's Maggie's Centre at Ninewells Hospital, Dundee, is the third of the pioneering support centres for cancer sufferers to open in Scotland. The charity's Scottish launch reflects the close connections of the late Maggie Keswick Jencks with Scotland (although the 10 further centres at various stages include six in England and one in Wales). Leading Scottish architects were selected: the Maggie's Centre in Edinburgh (opened in 1996, then extended - AJ 20.9.01) is by Richard Murphy; in Glasgow (opened last year) it is by Page and Park. In both cases, existing, redundant hospital buildings were imaginatively converted/extended to provide the requisite facilities.

Maggie's Centres supplement the work of the hospitals to which they are attached, offering patients and their families the support - a place to see a counsellor, share a coffee or a meal, or just talk to people who face similar problems - that Maggie Jencks found lacking when she was diagnosed with a recurrence of the cancer that eventually killed her. Her husband, Charles Jencks, a leading light in the Maggie's Centres initiative, insists that 'for people in this situation, time is everything. Maggie was given three months to live. She lived for two more, really worthwhile, years and that mattered so much for us and for her children and family.'

Frank Gehry's involvement with Maggie's Centres reflects his close friendship over many years with Charles and Maggie Jencks.

Without this personal tie it is hard to imagine the Pritzker Prize and Royal Gold Medal-winning architect of the Bilbao Guggenheim and Disney Hall, Los Angeles, working on a £1 million project in Scotland.

For Charles Jencks, the Dundee centre plus those being designed by Zaha Hadid (in Kirkcaldy) and Daniel Libeskind (in Cambridge) exemplify the organisation's willingness to take risks as part of its mission of 'letting the patients take control'.

Ninewells Hospital, developed as a major regional hospital on a suburban site from the 1960s onwards, has no attractive, disused old buildings with potential for reuse. There was no alternative to a new building. The site of the hospital is striking; on high ground, with fine views to the south over the Tay.

Gehry quickly identified the site he wanted, some distance from the main hospital complex. One complication was that the hospital's heli-pad - used for flying-in acute cases - had to be relocated, an eventuality that does not seem to have caused major problems for the local NHS Trust (which gave Maggie's Centres a 100-year lease on the site at a peppercorn rent). Gehry was, of course, absolutely right. The centre is placed within a short walk of the oncology department, through a grove of trees. Elevated high above the approach road to the hospital, it looks directly out to the estuary.

It was inevitable that Santa Monica-based Gehry & Partners would need locally based executive architects for the project and the choice fell on James F Stephen Architects of Glamis, with Fred Stephen and Doug Reid as partners in charge. Although Gehry himself visited the site more than once, his partner Jim Glymph ran the project. Though the building is modest in scale, its construction was clearly set to pose a challenge and Reid (working with construction manager HBG) appears to have addressed this with relish.

Gehry's building, though small, has all the hallmarks one expects from his hand. It is instantly striking.With its elliptical tower, it reads from a distance as a lighthouse or, perhaps, a chapel. From some angles, conversely, it can be read as an eccentric house.

In tune with the thinking of Maggie's Centres, nobody would imagine it to be part of a hospital (which, of course, it is not). As Reid says, 'the roof is everything'. In typical Gehry fashion, it consists of a series of intersecting folded planes that terminate in dramatically cantilevered overhangs, its serrated form giving it stability in the high winds that sometimes batter this exposed site. Its form, indeed, is more jagged and expressive than some of Gehry's more recent designs.

The roof is a timber structure, constructed of imported laminated plywood and spruce with Douglas Fir timber props.Walls are of brickwork covered in polymer render - superficially resembling traditional Scots harling. The roof is clad in stainless steel.

Gehry was insistent that a brushed 'angel hair' finish be applied to the steel; problems of securing this finish to the necessary quality from a British supplier resulted in the steel being imported from the US. Blown glass insulation slabs - extremely rigid - facilitating the fixing of the steel, were manufactured in Germany. This building may, like Miralles' Scottish Parliament building, have Scottish resonances, but both are the products of a global architecture market, not attempts at a new vernacular.

At about £450,000, the timber structure and roof accounted for nearly 50 per cent of the total cost of the building (additional landscaping has pushed the price towards the £1 million mark). It is, however, a wonderful thing, externally and internally. Inside the centre there are distinctly West Coast undertones of the 'wood butcher's' art. The timber roof structure was constructed by Cowley Timber Engineering, the specialist contractor that has worked on Will Alsop's Peckham Library and the Scottish Parliament, with WB Watson responsible for the stainless steel cladding. Its realisation was assisted by the constant interchange of CAD information between Gehry's office, the executive architects and Cowley. There are no gutters. The intention is that the rainwater will cascade off and be taken up by soakers.

The client's brief was similar to that for the Edinburgh and Glasgow centres. Most accommodation is open-plan and intended to encourage the sense of community and support that typifies Maggie's Centres. The kitchen/dining room is really the heart of the building and is open to the reception area.

An external balcony offers a place to sit in the sun on a fine day. A comfortable lounge can be used as a place to sit and relax or a space for remedial therapy. Several small private rooms are available for counselling. Up in the tower there is another comfortable seating area/library with spectacular views. The form of the tower is as eccentric as a handbuilt pot, posing further construction problems. 'The engineers were keen to use in situ concrete in the first instance, ' says Doug Reid, 'but we jointly decided that a timber structure was the only way to secure the exactness that Frank Gehry's designs required.' The tower is built on a timberframe, overlaid with plasterboard/plaster and, on external faces, render.

Internal spaces are floored throughout in beech. Joinery is of consistently good quality, giving the interior of the building a harmony likely to be reinforced by the choice of portable furnishings - a local carpenter is currently completing a 2.4m x 1.2m table to Gehry's own designs. The tower staircase is another typical Gehry design, with no nosing to the treads - the balustrade is formed of stainless steel rods.

Even without its final furnishings, internally the Centre is a delight. Warm and luminous, its defiantly hand-made quality is a riposte to the hard mechanical finishes found in the adjacent hospital. Although there are suggestions that Gehry had to modify his initial ideas in line with considerations of practicality and price, this is a building that could have been designed by nobody but him.

The fact that it has been so faithfully realised at a remote distance from his office gives the lie to the idea that his architecture is precious or dependent on huge budgets, and hints at Gehry's connections to an American tradition of hand-crafted building.

According to Doug Reid, 'the key issue was ensuring that the timber structure was precisely constructed. It is designed to be tight and exact; there was no scope for movement if it was to be made weatherproof and durable.'

Though Reid stresses his practice's subsidiary role in the project, the responsibility for getting it right clearly fell on the executive architect and construction manager.

The results are inspirational. This is a highly practical building that also manages to be hugely enjoyable and potentially spirit-lifting. The centre is already besieged by interested visitors and, much as it welcomes public interest in its work, is concerned about the potential for many more following the publicity surrounding its opening today.

There may have to be special opening hours and maybe even a modest admission charge.

In more respects than one, Gehry's building promises to be a beacon for the cause that Maggie's Centres so boldly promotes.

Talking to Jim Glymph Jim Glymph is Frank Gehry's partner most involved in Maggie's Centre, Dundee.

We talked to him about their design approach and working at a distance In outline, the brief for all Maggie's Centres is the same - to provide, close to the hospital's oncology department, a contrasting, non-institutional setting for cancer sufferers and their families, providing emotional support, relaxation and stress reduction, and information.

It is complementary rather than alternative therapy. People may just want somewhere to hide or somewhere to talk. As Glymph points out, what they certainly don't want is to be sitting for hours in hospital corridors waiting for test results. It is a 'very sterile environment' in the wrong sense, potentially 'a dehumanising process'but at the same time 'a very personal one'.

The centre needs to be a short walk (or wheelchair ride) from the hospital. That done, its main role is as a setting for support but not, of course, an anonymous one. While the building should have a 'residential look', it is also a beacon for the Maggie's Centre's existence; the architects felt that 'one storey does not have much presence'.

The expectation from the outside and reality within should be something 'warm, human, a bit lyrical'. The originally envisaged (but in the end unaffordable) titanium roof would have been 'warmer'with a different play of light to the stainless steel now installed - Frank Gehry had been studying Vermeer paintings and their brushstrokes at the time of design. Inside, the realisation of the roof framing particularly has achieved the beauty they were hoping for.

Glymph is also pleased with the working relationship with their Scottish architect-partner, James F Stephen. Collaboration began around stage D, with the Stephen office taking on the same Rhino software that Gehry uses so that information could be shared in 3D. (Gehry's usual Catia software is too complex and slow to learn for such a small project. ) This approach, Glymph points out, is normal practice; almost every Gehry project in Europe has an executive architect.

CREDITS

TENDER DATE February 2002

START ON SITE DATE April 2002

CONTRACT DURATION 46 weeks (74 weeks inc over-run)

PROCUREMENT Construction management

GROSS EXTERNAL FLOOR AREA 207m2 ground floor, 28m2 first floor

TOTAL TENDER COST £932,000

CLIENT Maggie's Centre

DESIGN ARCHITECT Gehry & Partners: Frank Gehry, Jim Glymph, Mok Wai Wan, Tomaso Bradshaw EXECUTIVE ARCHITECT James F Stephen Architects: Fred Stephen, Doug Reid, David Milton, Mark O'Connor

QUANTITY SURVEYOR DI Burchell & Partners

STRUCTURAL ENGINEER, PLANNING SUPERVISOR Arup Scotland

MAIN CONTRACTOR HBG Construction Scotland

SUBCONTRACTORS Substructure, external works, drainage, masonry, tiling, vinyl flooring Torith; carpentry, joinery glazing WBS Keillor; stainless steel roofingWB Watson; roof structure Cowley Structural Timberwork; decoration F Forbes & Son; electrical DH Morris; plumbing, heating Jaydee Heating; external render Birch Plastering; plastering, granolithic screed Ian Gracie's Specialist Contractors; tower glazing, skylights Gray & Dick

SUPPLIERS Stereo equipment Russ Andrews HI-FI; scaffolding Lyndon Scaffolding; timber flooring Junckers; vinyl flooring Altro; ceramic tiles Villeroy & Bosch; lighting iGuzzini, Terkan; upholstery Kvadrat;

laminate Abet Laminati; veneer plywood The Worldwide Wood Company; ironmongery Allgood

WEBLINKS

Maggie's Centre www. maggies. ed. ac. uk James F Stephen Architects www. jfstephen. co. uk Arup www. arup. com HBG Construction Scotland www. hbgc. co. uk

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