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Decision time for Barts Maggie’s in Holl versus Hopkins standoff

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On 17 July Maggie’s will seek permission for its Steven Holl design for a centre at Barts in the teeth of vehement objections. Richard Waite reports

When Steven Holl’s proposed Maggie’s cancer care centre at Barts hospital in Smithfield was rejected by the City of London last June, it was the first time in its 18-year history that the charity had failed to win planning for one of its schemes.

The organisation, which has built 16 centres by leading architects, was understandably surprised. The scheme had been recommended for approval.  

Undeterred, the American star and the charity tried again with a modified design. The team responded to the planning committee’s concerns about how the three-storey building would affect the future setting and use of the Grade I*-listed Great Hall in the North Wing of Barts and how it would sit in the landscaping – detail of which was mostly absent in the original submission.

But earlier this year the game changed dramatically. The Friends of the Great Hall – a group of objectors to the plans, headed by Marcus Setchell, the retired gynaecologist who had delivered Prince George – became more vociferous in its opposition. Not only was Holl’s Modernist vision [replacing an unloved 1960s finance building] out of keeping with the surroundings, the campaigners claimed, it would have a hugely detrimental impact on James Gibb’s 1738 hall. The revisions to Maggie’s plans, which will be heard by the planning committee on 17 July, have been dismissed by the Friends as ‘minor modifications’.

Instead, the group came up with a viable, ‘non-destructive’ alternative for the Great Hall, drawn up by British architectural establishment figure Michael Hopkins, won planning for it, and took the campaign into hyperdrive (AJ 18.04.14). The spat was covered in newspapers, on the radio and on TV. Maggie’s – and its chief executive Laura Lee – had never known anything like it.

Celebrities including actor Edward Fox and TV historian David Starkey entered the fray, Save Britain’s Heritage backed Hopkins, and the planning battle became a polarised tug-of-war between the Maggie’s Modernists and the heritage protectors.

‘What was truly shocking was the implication that we were [planning to] pull the Great Hall down,’ says Lee. ‘We are not.’

She adds: ‘If people don’t look into what they are saying and it is taken at face value, the Friends’ campaigning will have influence.’

Unlike Holl’s previous scheme, the reworked, ‘hermetically sealed’ scheme no longer touches the Great Hall at all. A planned link to provide toilets for those using the hall within the Maggie’s centre was ditched.

Since the refusal, the NHS Trust has appointed heritage expert and project collaborator Donald Insall Associates to look at how the Great Hall can be made ‘self-sufficient’ and has come up with new plans to keep the toilets in the Great Hall, increase capacity in the west-end basement and allow disabled access. Lee says: ‘Our building enhances the hall, takes away the distracting [finance block] and replaces it with a piece of architecture which will improve the overall experience. Our scheme is thoughtful and respectful to it. [It] looks to the future heritage without demeaning the past.’

Holl agrees: ‘Of course I’m disappointed to read the comments of objection [but] would like to reassure those who have voiced concern. Our scheme will in no way jeopardise the future of the Great Hall and the design will breathe new life into Barts.’

The Friends disagree. The group has numerous complaints about the ‘ultra-modern’ and ‘bulky’ Holl scheme and the Donald Insall plans for the hall, which they claim will see its glory ‘fade away’.

At the same time campaigners dismiss accusations that they are perverting the planning process. Setchell says: ‘Protection of [listed buildings] by planning authorities is part of their statutory duties. The committee should not […] be intimidated by emotional arguments.’

Hopkins maintains his involve­ment began in 2009, when he carried out an options study for heritage buildings at Barts for the NHS Trust before Maggie’s was invited to create plans for a new centre in 2010. However, Hopkins didn’t start working with the Friends until 2012 – after much of the consultation for the proposed Maggie’s had taken place.

The Trust has said quite clearly it can’t support the scheme

Although Hopkins has come up with an alternative which would see the Maggie’s centre moved ‘just 20 yards’ away from its proposed site and two service cores added on either end of the historic hall, there is a problem: it is not what Barts wants and involves the demolition of an in-use pathology wing. The hospital’s carefully worked-out masterplan earmarks the site next to the hall for the Maggie’s as part of its wider redevelopment. 

As Lee says: ‘We looked long and hard at what the Friends wanted. [But] their scheme has to pull down a pathology block, which houses important imagery facilities. The Trust has said quite clearly it can’t support the scheme.’

Francis Maude of Donald Insall Associates agrees: ‘[Our] proposals for the Great Hall allow the North Wing to be self-sufficient within its existing footprint – which is not achieved by Hopkins – and allows the sites at both ends to be used for the developing purposes of the hospital, where Hopkins will encumber them with stair and lift towers. He adds: ‘[The City planners] should not be intimidated by the eminence of those opposing the application.’

Support for Maggie’s and Holl – whose Glasgow School of Art building recently picked up the AJ100 Building of the Year Award – appears to be growing.

Neil Gillespie of Reiach and Hall, which has just completed Maggie’s Airdrie centre, believes Holl has designed something that ‘will lift the spirits’ while Piers Gough, whose practice CZWG designed the Nottingham Maggie’s, says: ‘Holl’s scheme for Barts is subtle, really astute and lovely. He has done something really quite delicate and very appropriate for the place.’

Gough hopes Maggie’s will remain resolute in the face of the vehement objections.

He adds: ‘I believe the so-called Friends are honestly well-intentioned. But they have a rather Neanderthal view of what good, modern architecture is. Sometimes you have to put your foot down. Maggie’s shouldn’t be a pushover. They should support their architect to the hilt.’

Planning consultant Peter Stewart also backs the Holl plan. He says: ‘It is a reverse of the normal situation, where something mediocre is proposed but, because it’s saving babies, everybody rolls over and says “yes”. 

‘Here Maggie’s has done the right thing – employed a leading architect – and they are still getting into trouble.

‘Holl’s scheme is good. My feeling is that a few heads need to be knocked together – it seems a rather undignified stand-off.’


Hopkins asked by the NHS Trust to look at heritage buildings at Barts identifying ‘essential improvements’ to the Great Hall, in James Gibbs’ 1738 North Wing, next to the 1960s finance block.

April 2010
Maggie’s invited by NHS Trust to create plans for a centre at Barts. Site confirmed, consultation begins. Steven Holl appointed.

February 2011
Trust Board approves Maggie’s Centre at Barts.

Mid 2012
Hopkins appointed by Friends of the Great Hall to draw up alternative plans to Holl’s proposals. Holl reveals first sketches.

February 2013
Holl submits plans for centre, which includes access from hall for toilets. Scheme recommended for approval. The Friends object.

June 2013
Holl’s Maggie centre rejected by planners. Maggie’s withdraw application.

July 2013
Donald Insall Associates appointed directly by NHS Trust to look at how Great Hall can be ‘self-sufficient’ and sit alongside Holl scheme.

February 2014
Trust Board reconfirm support for Maggie’s Centre. Hopkins submits rival plans on behalf of Friends for new cores on ends of North Wing.

March 2014
As landowners the Trust writes in objection to the Hopkins application.

April 2014
Holl submits revised plans. Trust board supports revised scheme. Hopkins wins planning for rival plans.

June 2014
Trust outlines vision for the future of the Great Hall.

July 2014
City of London set to hear Holl’s new plans.

Model of Holl's plans

Interview with Steven Holl

Explain how your scheme will enhance the existing, historic environment.
It is also a serious challenge to build in a most sensitive and deeply historic site at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital in London, the oldest continuous operating hospital in the UK. We began the project with a careful study of all aspects of the site and its surroundings. I was especially interested in the Hogarth Stair. I was introduced to Hogarth etchings by my godfather in Seattle, Washington in 1960.

The Great Hall Building [is] compromised by a pragmatic 1960s brick addition, which [will] be demolished for the Maggie’s Centre. We shaped our scheme to re-expose the corner quoins on the Gibbs Building and expose some of the historic window moldings, which are now covered. Our deep respect for the Chapel of St. Bartholomew the Less is reflected in the landscape plan by Christopher Bradley Hall.

We have also included a reference to the chapel’s stained glass in our design. In the spirit of Maggie’s mission and continuing successful realization, our scheme of a matt finished glass façade is light and inviting. Like a new type of stained glass, the play of color on the Maggie’s interior will be an amazing and joyful experience, changing with the light of the day and the seasons.

How do you handle criticism of your project?
I am of course disappointed to read the comments of objection and would like to reassure those who have voiced their concerns. Our scheme will in no way jeopardize the future of the Great Hall and the design will breathe new life into Barts.

How have you find the UK planning system?
The planning process is thorough and Maggie’s has worked very closely with the City of London to answer all of the queries and questions they have in detail.
I know the planners will consider this application properly and make the right decision to ensure St. Bartholomew’s hospital retains its role as a world-leading institution in health care and innovation as well as being a piece of inspirational architecture that the City of London can be proud of.

Are there similarities between your experiences with the Glasgow School of Art and here at Barts?
Both our project at the Glasgow School of Art and our scheme for the Maggie’s Centre at Barts are situated in very significant historic contexts in which the new architecture must enhance the historic. The strategy of ‘complementary contrast’ is the best way to address the importance of the site.
The site is the metaphysical beginning of a piece of architecture, and these projects really bring that home. To respect the authenticity of historic architecture, ou cannot mimic the old, but you must make an authentically new piece that doesn’t overwhelm it and that complements it. You can see that in several of our buildings, such as the Pratt Institute Higgins Hall, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, and the Glasgow School of Art Reid Building.

Would you do anything differently in hindsight?
We’d we would not do anything differently. We worked very hard and carefully, and this is the best possible project, which if realized will lift spirits. This effort is difficult, but as Spinoza said, ‘good things are never easy; they are as difficult as they are rare.’  

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