Edinbugh firm Reiach and Hall has created an empathetic space that invites nature to provide succour for its visitors, writes Ellis Woodman
Now in its 18th year, cancer care charity Maggie’s has made impressive progress towards building a centre at every hospital in the country that supports an oncology department.
Next year’s completion of the NORD-designed centre at Falkirk will mark the fulfilment of that mission in Scotland. South of the border, Wilkinson Eyre’s Oxford facility is on the point of opening, with further buildings by Foster + Partners, Dow Jones and Steven Holl set to follow.
The brief presented to each architect has remained largely unchanged: a building of domestic scale where patients and their loved ones can seek advice and comfort as well as accessing group classes in such subjects as nutrition, yoga and meditation.
Where the brief has evolved is in the greater emphasis placed on the incorporation of external space - a change motivated in significant part by a desire to make the centres more appealing to men. Experience has shown that men are often more reluctant to embark on the emotional encounter that a visit to a Maggie’s Centre inevitably involves. A garden can allow the wary visitor more control over their engagement: a space to dawdle before taking the plunge or to escape, should the situation become overwhelming. Visitors are invited to participate in garden maintenance, providing a potentially less confrontational setting for conversation than a counselling room.
This development has been attended by a toning-down in the architectural rhetoric of the centres now being commissioned. The formal pyrotechnics of such early iterations as Frank Gehry’s building in Dundee and Zaha Hadid’s in Kirkcaldy have been exchanged for a greater focus on the making of places in which interior and exterior spaces enjoy an equivalent status. This is well exemplified by the latest Maggie’s Centre, which stands in the grounds of Monklands Hospital in Airdrie. The building comprises a single-storey structure sited between two gardens, with all three components being enclosed and unified by an encompassing brick wall. The hospital site is ringed by what was once a continuous band of lime trees, which has been broken in places by the introduction of additional parking spaces. Reiach and Hall has reclaimed one of these areas, siting its building on the space formerly occupied by cars while capturing the mature trees that stand to either side within the territory of the walled gardens.
The wall has been constructed from the hand-made Tegl brick manufactured by Danish company Petersen - a product that Reiach and Hall also employed in the design of its recent Bannockburn Visitor Centre. The variety specified for the Maggie’s Centre is blonde rather than the dark grey used there but in both projects the aim has been to cultivate a wall surface that presents a textile-like richness. The Maggie’s Centre wall is of Flemish bond but with significant disruptions caused by the intermittent introduction of a long-format Kolumba brick, the type that Petersen first developed for use in Peter Zumthor’s Diocesan Museum in Cologne.
The jumping rhythm is registered vividly by perforations that have been introduced wherever the wall is freestanding. Ensuring rigidity has required the provision of piers, which are bound together by a concrete coping that extends along the top of the wall and by a band of solid brickwork laid with stainless steel reinforcement at its mid-height. The treatment is highly systematic - suggesting the delirious complexity of a pianola score - and the wall presents a richly haptic quality. A linen rag was employed to create a rubbed mortar joint and vegetation should, in time, have a further softening effect.
The sun made only a fleeting appearance during my visit but, when it did show, the whole site seemed to rouse itself as a vibrantly animated light percolated through the holes in the wall and the branches of the trees.
There is a 2.5m drop from one end of the site to the other. We enter at the upslope end by way of the smaller of the two courtyards. To one side stands a white precast trough of flowing water inscribed with the words ‘allt beag’ - Gaelic for ‘little burn’. Conceived by the poet Thomas A Clark, this feature was to have been answered by a body of still water - ‘an loch an ban’ (the white lochan) - at the far end of the second courtyard. Budgetary issues have meant that this pool has yet to be realised but it is still hoped that funds can be found for the full implementation of what promises to be a powerful spatial narrative.
The front door is set within an expanse of full-height glazing framed in slimline steel sections that admits a view across the body of the building, through another fully glazed wall closing its far end and out to the far brick wall of the second courtyard. This permeability is a product of the plan’s arrangement in three linear strips. A 3m-deep band comprising more cellular spaces has been ranged along one wall and a 5m-deep zone housing the offices and a multifunctional room, where group classes are hosted, is sited on the other.
The entrance area, kitchen and library are distributed between, forming a more fluid and expansive terrain. The detailing consolidates the legibility of this arrangement: the steel frame and the timber roof joists that it supports have both been left exposed while storage is accommodated within deep ply-faced partition walls separating the three bands.
A close relationship between interior and exterior space has been further cultivated by the introduction of four smaller courtyards within the body of the building: two structuring the central space and one each located within the perimeter strips. The ones located on the central axis are crowned with a device that the architect terms a sun-catcher - an open-topped box of gold-stained stainless steel that hangs just inboard of the glass. These have been perforated with a pattern of triangles that follows the same structure as the holes in the brickwork. They serve not only as a means of animating daylight but also as a way of bringing reflections of the trees into the building: the one note of illusionism in an interior otherwise characterised by a rigorous structural, spatial and material self-evidence.
Among the Maggie’s Centres built to date, Reiach and Hall’s contribution ranks as one of the least formally demonstrative but is none the less affecting for that. The building conveys a powerful empathy for the emotions of people undergoing one of life’s most challenging experiences and illuminates the capacity of nature to serve as a vehicle for their physical and spiritual regeneration.