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AJ100 2010 Contribution to Architecture: Laura Lee

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Practices entering the AJ100 were asked to vote on the person who had made the greatest contribution to the profession. Given a choice of seven names, Laura Lee emerged a clear winner, with 408 votes.

It has been a good year for Laura Lee, director of charity Maggie’s. In London, the Maggie’s cancer caring centre designed by Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners won the Stirling Prize and also received the most high-octane of visits when Sarah Brown, wife of the former prime minister, popped along with her house guest, Michelle Obama.

A book on Maggie’s has just been published, written by journalist Edwin Heathcote and architectural theorist Charles Jencks, husband of Maggie Keswick Jencks, who devised the centres when she was being treated for breast cancer.

Not resting on her laurels, Lee has just produced a new five-year plan, which includes the construction of eight new centres. Will these all be by different and previously unused architects? ‘I hope so,’ she says.

Lee, who was Jencks’ cancer nurse, helped her come up with the idea for centres that offer support outside the health system, and became manager of the first centre, designed by Richard Murphy and opened after Jencks’ death. From there she moved on to running the charity, now a sizeable operation.

Lee retains her nurse’s ability to deal with everybody on equal terms, and her conversation is peppered with first names. ‘We didn’t pick Frank [Gehry] for what he could do for us,’ when they appointed him to design the Maggie’s in Dundee, opened in 2003. ‘We weren’t prepared for the impact. When you are really tiny that is a massive boost.’

Gehry, she says, toned down his early designs of his own accord when he realised what the Maggie’s ethos is all about. And despite the roll call of stars, which also includes Zaha Hadid, Rem Koolhaas and the late Kisho Kurokawa, she is insistent that her main concern is the quality of the experience for cancer su erers. ‘We are not building architectural statements,’ she said. ‘We are building cancer caring centres. Architects have to deliver that component of the brief.’

‘Each community is getting something that is not factory produced. Each architect is fresh.’

She has not been entirely lucky with her rchitects. First, Kurokawa died early in the process, but his practice is carrying his work forward in association with local Swansea architects. Then Foreign Office Architects, appointed to design the Newcastle building, had to withdraw. Edward Cullinan took on that project and is designing a centre aimed at encouraging men to use the facilities, with a gym and a barbecue. In fact, Lee is proud of the fact that one third of the users of her buildings are men - a much higher proportion than is the norm for caring facilities.

Recent problems have not put her off employing new architects. ‘It gives each community its own thought-through centre,’ she says. ‘Each architect is fresh. They have to investigate the brief. Each community is getting something that is not factory produced. There is a real pride that people have over their own building.’

As Maggie’s continues to grow, it may be that not all centres will be in stand-alone buildings. Discussions are under way about including a Maggie’s within the Ambulatory Cancer Centre that Hopkins Architects is designing for University College London Hospital. ‘We will see if we could do an interior space and create the equivalent
inclusivity and atmosphere,’ Lee says.

Recently Lee has been travelling a lot and is aware that some countries do not have the same approach to charitable giving as the UK. She would not be averse to state support here, but is adamant that Maggie’s must remain outside the administration of the NHS. ‘People have to be able to work through their ideas outside the system,’ she says. ‘There is a need for an independent place. But I have no problem if it is funded by a different route.’

Lee says that one of the decisions for the future will be whether Maggie’s expands overseas. It is already doing so in a slightly random manner. Frank Gehry is designing a centre in Hong Kong that was set up by a group of donors. Gehry also designed a centre in Aarhus, Denmark, for a group inspired by the Maggie’s operation, and another Danish project is planned, designed by NORD Architects of Copenhagen. A centre in Dublin was also inspired by Maggie’s.

In Barcelona, fundraising is taking place for a centre for which Lee is providing ‘the benefit of our experience’. She has also given them their architect, having met Benedetta Tagliabue of EMBT when the latter judged the Stirling Prize. ‘They are starting from zero,’ Lee says. ‘They need people committed on a personal scale.’ Tagliabue is a great choice both because of her proš le and because she has her own experience of cancer - her husband, architect Enric Miralles, died of a brain tumour.

But amongst all this networking, nothing beats the Obama visit for glamour. ‘It got us coverage that you never could have planned for or got on your own terms,’ Lee says. Now that President Obama is sorting out his own healthcare problems, perhaps it is time for a return visit to the White House? Lee would be sure to take it in her stride.

The next two choices in this catagory were as follows:

Paul King 223 votes
Paul King is the fi rst CEO of the UK Green Building Council (GBC). Prior to that he worked for environmental charity WWF-UK and was campaign director for its One Million Sustainable Homes campaign. He co-founded One Planet Living and is chairman of the Zero Carbon Hub and the World GBC Policy Task Force.

John Sorrell 111 votes
John Sorrell was chair of the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment until last year. A designer, he ran Newell & Sorrell with his wife Frances and was chair of the Design Council until 2000. Sorrell set up the London Design Festival and is co-chair of the Sorrell Foundation, which promotes good design.

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