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Maggie's Aberdeen: ‘It didn’t start with a pebble’

British-born Robert Greenwood, project architect on Snøhetta’s new Aberdeen Maggie’s Centre, talks about pebbles and politics

How did Snøhetta get the Maggie’s commission?

Maggie’s always invites its architects. Maggie’s chief executive Laura Lee gave us a call out of the blue; one of those nice things that doesn’t happen often. They’d done their homework and had probably been looking at us for a while.

What was the process of design?

We try not to just go away, design a building and then come back to show it. We try to involve clients in dialogue and get quite physical. We make models as we talk. We try to avoid any disconnect between talking and making; they go on in parallel.

Several talented architects have designed a Maggie’s; what do you think you have brought to this very particular building?

What I like about the space is that it is intimate, but generous. It is a big space and I feel part of a larger whole whether I am in the lounge or library. It’s light – it feels like a sunny day when it isn’t. The exterior is soft and curvy, but it’s made of hard concrete. The inside is the opposite; its edge is hard, but it’s softwood. There is a nice twist between exterior and interior.

How did you arrive at this form?

We didn’t start with the pebble, we started with the spaces we wanted inside; which may seem strange now as it looks like an object. The first thing we talked about with Laura Lee was making the three key spaces. The building is full of unusual spaces, vistas and qualities – it’s part of creating an atmosphere that is a bit special.

It was hard for the contractors to build this form. Now it’s complete were you right to adopt such a complex design?

The geometry is complex. It is curved, but we have tried to simplify the curves. It’s amazing that the contractors managed to build it. They were not sure that they could – they found their own way. It’s a bit rough on the outside, but I think that buildings should be rough on the outside; it’s extremely well finished inside.

Are you finding a new approach to the relationship between building and landscape?

We don’t make theories about our work, that’s quite fundamental. We are happy that other people do, but we don’t try to bring our work into a theme as Rem Koolhaas and others do, we are much more intuitive. Maybe it’s a Scandinavian or Norwegian thing.

If you are not theoretical, why is your website quite so political?

Politics and theory are different. We have to be political; architecture is political. We are not theoretical because we don’t write down theories about what is right and wrong, but architecture is about using power and money for the better. If there is an important Nordic tradition, it is the very social democratic, flat structure.

Readers' comments (1)

  • 'The contractors found their own way' - there's surely an opportunity for research on just how builders over the last century have successfully tackled radical and challenging construction; a few years back at Ronchamp I asked the visitor centre manager who it was that had risen to the challenge of making such a revolutionary design real, but she couldn't enlighten me.
    The 'knowing how' must have surely uncovered some construction industry geniuses over the years, particularly before the rise of computer aided design.

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