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Stirling Prize 2012: Maggie’s Centre, Gartnavel by OMA

‘Maggie’s Gartnavel is a lyrical building, a fine essay of concrete, glass and landscape,’ writes Neil Gillespie

Peregrinus means ‘one from abroad’, a foreigner or traveller - it was a term given to medieval monks who in following Christ left their folk and homeland to be exiles. Wherever they went on their wanderings or peregrinations, they built chapels and cells while seeking to evangelise those around them through text and sermon.

Rem Koolhaas is ‘one from abroad’. He has the appearance, the demeanour, the delivery and the celebrity of a clericus vagans, gaunt and haunted, burdened by the knowledge and insight of the seer. Koolhaas is like a latter-day Erasmus, the wandering humanist - both were born in Rotterdam. Interestingly, it was said of Erasmus that printing presses were his lifelines; he had a dislike of permanent commitments. What Leon E Halkin said of Erasmus in his book Erasmus: A Critical Biography might also be said of Koolhaas, ‘In our own times his attractiveness still lies for many in his being a European, not a sectarian or national figure. Since he belongs nowhere, he belongs everywhere.’

The citation for the architect’s RIBA Jencks Award 2012 states: ‘Rem Koolhaas consciously works to deepen and expand the intrinsic connections between architecture and contemporary culture. All of his projects examine ways that architecture can engage with the contemporary city and the cultural context in which it operates.’

To that end OMA and its research office AMO circumnavigate the globe, albatross-like, in pursuit of contemporary culture, leaving behind the staleness and irrelevance of cultures that to them have settled into middle and old age. OMA/AMO are keen to deny they design buildings that are concerned with traditional architectural values. Koolhaas is quoted as saying: ‘No money, no details. Just concepts’, or ‘We were making sandcastles. Now we swim in the sea that swept them away.’

Occasionally, however, the guard of indifference to architecture as a discipline of space and material is dropped and the architect is laid bare. In spite of itself, OMA can make buildings that tug at emotions that lie deeper than the popular, the statistical or the polemical. Maggie’s Gartnavel is a lyrical building, a fine essay of concrete, glass and landscape.

This is a building about experience rather than theory. It is agreeable, filled with light and landscape. It is intimate yet has a measured aloofness. The strength of this modest building is remarkable; photographs edit out the real context, the banality and the visual squalor of a general hospital, a scene of accumulated architectural debris. With its attendant virginal birches, the building reads like a small temple, refined and distant, a contemporary chapel that serves to evangelise the context around it.

The plan is a concrete tonsure of overlapping rooms whose serrated sequence circles a grassy pate. Paradoxically, while the monastic tonsure is an act of cutting off self-will, here OMA’s plan for Maggie’s Gartnavel is wilful. It confronts
the Maggie’s rule of situating the kitchen table at the centre of the plan, as a meeting place from which all conversation spins out; a fixed point of reference and comfort. The OMA plan gives no primacy to the kitchen table - one space leads to another. The plan promotes exploration, walking, making a delightful peregrination around a small landscaped court.

Maggie’s Gartnavel is an immensely revealing and a significant piece of architecture. This modest building appears to embody the essence and contradictory nature of this internationally acclaimed architect, on the one hand restless, inquisitive and inventive, while on the other capable of creating elegant, poetic and measured spaces.

To quote Heidegger: ‘The stranger’s out on the road and well ahead. He isn’t just wandering about, with nowhere to go. All the time, he’s coming closer to a place he can call his own.’

Neil Gillespie, design director of Reiach and Hall

AJ Buildings Library

See images, drawings and details of Maggie’s Centre, Gartnavel by OMA

Q +  A: Ellen van Loon, OMA partner, director of Maggie’s Gartnavel

What was your initial design concept?

Informed by the brief and an analysis of the other Maggie’s Centres, the initial design concept for the Gartnavel centre was to organise the building around a central courtyard. This captured some of the nature on-site to create a sheltering space that could be a respite from the daily challenges of coping with cancer and to provide an escape from the frequently dire institutional architectural setting in which these experiences often take place.

Did the final scheme alter much from this concept?

The final design stayed true to the initial concept throughout the design process. However, there was a lengthy exploration and investigation before arriving at the final design that included studying the arrangement and sequence of spaces, selecting and framing both internal and external views, balancing the needs for intimate privacy and social interaction, and creating a variety of different atmospheres and conditions to respond to various needs of the users.

What was the most challenging aspect of the project - and why?

The most challenging aspect of the project was the intense (and self-imposed) pressure to create a space that appropriately responded and was sympathetic to the psychological and emotional needs of people who would use the centre while undergoing an incredibly stressful, trying and intensely personal experience.

Why did you break with the Maggie’s tradition of placing the kitchen at the centre?

It was not necessarily an overtly conscious decision to deviate from tradition, but resulted from the initial questioning of the brief and evaluation of the existing Maggie’s Centres. The kitchen still occupies a welcoming and inviting place in the plan, with the communal table and countertop visible when entering. However, we felt it was also important to allow people the chance to not be immediately confronted by the pressure of interaction and to be given the choice to engage at their own pace.

Does architecture need to address the issue of death and dying? Why?

While not necessarily something that we are comfortable confronting, given the current demographics and a population that is getting older and older, our increased longevity and eventual senescence is unavoidably something that architecture will need to address. As old age becomes a more acute and important factor in society, the design of our cities and buildings will have to respond to it.

The question is not so much why we - as architects and moreover as a society - need to address it, but how?

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