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Maggie's Centre, Gartnavel Hospital, Glasgow by OMA

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Rem Koolhaas has typically broken with convention with his doughnut-shaped, non-cosy Maggie’s Centre. And where’s the kitchen? Rory Olcayto goes on a walk

Rem Koolhaas’ foremost skill is in scoping out the bigger picture long before his rivals do and then making a new architecture that redefines the scene. The China Central Television building for example, which he chose to compete for instead of Ground Zero, is an Escher-like looping archway that dominates Beijing.

It actually re-imagines what a skyscraper can be, whereas SOM’s Freedom Tower in New York, a landmark because of height alone, remains squarely stuck in the past.

So the Koolhaas-designed Maggie’s Centre, located in the middle of the Gartnavel Hospital campus in Glasgow, was always going to be the most provocative, the most interesting of the lot. Beyond the cosiness of the brand, these buildings are about how we confront mortality. Would that be made explicit in a Koolhaas Maggie’s?

Furthermore, Koolhaas and Charles Jencks, founder of the unique series of cancer care centres, have been arguing – or exchanging ideas – since becoming friends more than 40 years ago. How would that shape the building itself? Here’s a recent ‘exchange’:

Jencks: ‘You’re in your late-mellow period, but your new sobriety was a kind of Neo-Miesian and Ungers’ Minimalism.’
Koolhaas: ‘I was definitely seduced by their virtuosity. Maybe you could construct an argument that our whole work is a kind of desperate stand-off between the generic and virtuosity. Virtuosity that has no place inside the generic and that has to find a place.’ 1

Perhaps Koolhaas is self-deprecating to avoid confronting Jencks head on, but it might also be read as a barbed perspective on the whole Maggie’s endeavour, ‘virtuosity that has no place inside the generic’. More likely, it highlights the task of bringing something new to this self-consciously architectural, hybrid building type.

But in his first completed British building, Koolhaas has managed to do that with a surprisingly simple move: the kitchen and its all-important table, where visitors are encouraged to share their feelings about living with cancer, is no longer at the centre of the plan. With Maggie’s centres until now, that has always been the case. Given that Zaha Hadid, Richard Rogers, Richard MacCormac and the rest didn’t mess with this rule, it’s clearly significant.

The best ideas are often the most obvious. It actually seems strange it has taken this long to reconsider the Maggie’s plan. This is the eighth centre to complete. Why should the kitchen always be in the middle?

At the opening of Glasgow’s second Maggie’s (Page\Park Archiects did the first in 2002), I don’t even register where the kitchen is at first. There are plenty of distractions; Scotland’s architectural grandees and media are out in force, and everyone is drinking fizzy wine. The looping plan however, is immediately clear: a series of overlapping Miesian boxes ‘scrunched up into an intriguing cloister’. 2

The sequence creates distinguishable, but loosely defined areas that provide amazing views across the city and frame the hospital grounds – elevations of nearby buildings and the woodland alongside the centre – with full-height glazing. Polished stainless steel wall surfaces and huge sliding doors expand the sense of space. The route has ramps that follow the topography of the site, which slopes down, north to south. A thick concrete roof, with beech planks cast into the ceiling, floats over the whole floorplate, and together with the central courtyard, unifies the plan.

On my way around the circuit – the plan really does encourage you to stroll – I bump into Jencks himself, who has swept in from a wooded glade on the western edge. ‘It’s the first doughnut we’ve done,’ he says. He’s shouting. ‘The acoustics… it’s too loud. I’ve been trying to convince them to put rugs on the wall.’ I joke that the plan has minimised corridors and hallways – a fundamental Maggie’s objective – by creating an infinite corridor.

‘The corridor has swallowed the building! says Jencks. ‘OMA’s 30-year ‘investigation of the corridor-as-ramp-and-room culminates here.’

That investigation has seen ramped galleries in the Rotterdam Kunsthal, a continuous administrative route winding upwards through the Dutch embassy in Berlin, and Seattle Central Library and Beijing’s CCTV building arranged as stacked blocks of interlocking departments on a monumental scale. In the Maggie’s Gartnavel kitchen, which has a long metal ‘canteen’ table and resin wall units, I find Shohei Shigematsu, the OMA partner in charge of American projects. He’s been with the firm for 13 years. ‘The notion of the programmatic chain is always there.’ He’s jet-lagged but I press him for his view: ‘There’s too much corridor – I thought it was going to be more room-to-room… I was a little bit disappointed.’

And then I meet Rem. We take a seat in one of the counselling rooms, a copy of Jencks’ The Iconic Building: The Power of Enigma artfully placed on a side-table. ‘It’s not so much about a 30-year development, as about how meaning shifts; from the scale to the different context,’ he says, side-stepping Jencks’ point about the corridor-as-ramp-and-room. ‘The loop is a kind of organisational device that enables different departments to communicate with each other, and here it’s an articulation of “many people are in the same boat”. It’s more an emblem of a community.’

Associate in charge Richard Hollington has another view. ‘We looked back to a lost part of OMA’s history, to the Maison Bordeaux (for a wheelchair-using client) and to that specific suitedness to the user.’ 3 That, alas, is never something you can tell from a visit like this. At a Maggie’s opening party, there is fanfare, celebration and pride, where normally there might be calm, or tears.

This brings us back to the kitchen table – a cup of tea and a friendly chat are symbolic of the Maggie’s experience. After meeting Rem, I see Neil Gillespie of Reiach and Hall, who has also designed a Maggie’s – for Wishaw – although it remains unbuilt. He’s talking with Charlie Cutting of executive architect Keppie, and who managed the project on site. It’s Neil who highlights the kitchen is askance, de-emphasised on plan, who explains how this links to the looping promenade. ‘It’s the first thing I noticed, and it’s a brilliant move. I always thought the whole idea of the cosy kitchen was a bit twee.’

Gillespie is having fun here, but he’s accurate. ‘Maybe Rem just understands the Scottish temperament,’ he continues. ‘We don’t like to talk about emotional matters face to face, do we? So we go for a walk instead. That’s why golf is so popular in Scotland. You don’t need to look at each other while you talk about serious matters!’

It has taken fifteen years for the Maggie’s Centre to evolve: the kitchen is dead; long live the promenade.

How to design for death, however, still has a way to go. Yet there are gentle allusions to how this might be done in Maggie’s Gartnavel – in the notion of wandering an infinite corridor with an ever-shifting perspective on the outside world. (It might also be seen as the built expression of Jencks and Koolhaas’ endless circular arguments.)

‘This may not only be architecture for cancer, but for the whole issue of aging and dying,’ Koolhaas says later for the cameras, claiming the last word. ‘Addressing that both frankly and generously is more and more crucial,’ he adds, setting the scene for the difficult task ahead.

1 Architectural Design, September/October 2011, vol 81, issue 5: Radical Post-modernism, edited by Charles Jencks and FAT. Quotations from Radical Post-modernism and Content: Charles Jencks and Rem Koolhaas Debate the Issue (pp 32-45). Visit
onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/ad.1293/abstract for a transcript of a debate between Jencks and Koolhaas on 28 December 2009
2 The Architecture of Hope: Maggie’s Cancer Caring Centres, Charles Jencks, Edwin Heathcote, p180 (attributed to Heathcote)
3 Ibid. p180

The Maggie’s Centres

Completed buildings
1996 Edinburgh, Western General Hospital: Richard Murphy Architects (nominated for 1997 Stirling Prize)
2002 Glasgow, Western Infirmary: Page\Park Architects
2003 Dundee, Ninewells Hospital: Frank Gehry (his only UK building)
2005 Inverness, Raigmore Hospital: Page\Park Architects (winner of 2006 RIAS Andrew Doolan Award)
2006 Kirkcaldy, Victoria Hospital: Zaha Hadid Architects (her first UK project)
2008 London, Charing Cross Hospital: Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners (winner of 2009 Stirling Prize)
2010 Cheltenham, General Hospital: MJP Architects
2011 Glasgow, Gartnavel Hospital: OMA. Nottingham, City Hospital: CZWG with Paul Smith (opens 2 Nov). Swansea, Singleton
Hospital: Kisho Kurokawa Architect and Associates (opens 9 Dec)

Planned buildings
Wishaw, General Hospital: Reiach & Hall Oxford,
Oxford Radcliffe Hospital: Wilkinson Eyre
Newcastle, Freeman Hospital: Edward Cullinan Architects
Aberdeen, Foresterhill Hospital: Snøhetta
Hong Kong, Tuen Mun Hospital: Frank Gehry
Barcelona (site to be decided): EMBT


Start on site November 2010
Gross internal floor area 534.2m2
Total cost £2.8 million
Client Maggie’s Cancer Caring Centres
Architect OMA
Executive architect Keppie
Structural engineer Sinclair Knight Merz
M&E consultant KJ Tait
Landscape consultant Lily Jencks with HarrisonStevens
Shelving Vincent de Rijk
Main contractor Dunne


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