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Raising the level of care: Maggie's Oxford by Wilkinson Eyre

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Wilkinson Eyre’s Oxford Maggie’s Centre is a tree house-like structure reminiscent of a Californian Modernist home, writes Jay Merrick

f you’re a cancer patient being treated at Oxford’s Churchill hospital, you can enter the site from Roosevelt Drive, turning right past the massive, virtually featureless corner segment of the Oxford Cancer and Haematology centre. The slightly sloped matt grey elevation is unsettling: it has the aura of a Postmodern Maginot Line bunker, or some dreadful High-Tech tumulus.

Two hundred metres further along the perimeter road, opposite the big Lego block architecture of the oncology buildings, we find a small architectural riposte. The Maggie’s Centre designed by Wilkinson Eyre Architects is held up on fat pencils of glulam, which rise in nine three-pronged splays from screw foundations. For a moment the form looks slightly ad hoc, even unfinished, because everything about the design, in plan, elevation, and key details is slightly skewed.

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As the true complexities of the three-winged form become more apparent, it’s obvious that Wilkinson Eyre’s engineer, Alan Baxter Associates, had to be on its mettle. ‘It’s a bit more than a bungalow on stilts,’ says Chris Wilkinson drily.

The ripple effect of asymmetries, triggered by the slightly out-of-kilter plans of the building’s base and roof, have exponential effects on the structure’s major-to-minor members, their connections, the lines and cants of the glazing, and shadow-effects. The 2D drawings for the roof plan in flattened form, and the 3D drawing of the reflected ceiling could have come from a 1960s A level maths paper; the prospect of solving any questions relating to the 3D diagram of the whole structure would have made those students of yesteryear flinch, fingering their runic Faber-Castell slide rules nervously.

Wilkinson, supported by project architect Andrew Walsh, has created what he describes as a treehouse. It is, strictly speaking, a belvedere whose base is lifted no more than 3m above the ground on a small, partly wooded parcel of land designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), with a stream running along one of its edges. The landscaping beneath the structure, designed by Flora Gathorne-Hardy of Touchstone Collaborations, is a delicately imprinted array of interlocking circles marked out with stone and plantings. Down here, in the mod-pagan glulam coppice, Wilkinson’s idea of ‘treading lightly’ is well demonstrated.

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When the practice was approached by the Maggie’s organisation in 2005, Wilkinson was originally offered a site next to the oncology buildings. ‘It was really unpleasant,’ says Wilkinson. ‘Then we wandered around and saw this patch of land. Part of the site was owned by a nursery, but the owner was very supportive. The main planning problem concerned the trees on the site. Some diseased trees could be removed, but the plan of the building has protected the substantial trees close to it.’

The building tests Wilkinson’s belief in the profundities of geometry. In the practice’s forthcoming 30th anniversary book, he suggests that even malls and vast High-Tech sheds with super-efficient geometries of volume and structure can have spiritual qualities. If we accept that idea then Maggie’s Oxford could be thought of as a chapel of sorts.

If some visiting patients and relatives are covert worshippers of quadrilaterals and triangulations, so much the better. There are 10 triangulations in the copper-clad roof, hundreds in the five oak-planked exterior screens which symbolise branches, dozens in the lines routed into the internal birch ply wall surfaces, while the big triangular kitchen table at the centre of the building splits into smaller triangles.

‘It’s hard to justify the geometry,’ admits Wilkinson. ‘But if you want to create something special, you have to try something different. Can architecture help people who are ill? I believe it can if you create plenty of light and contact with nature. We’ve tried to create something that isn’t normal - I mean that’s not just a house or a clinic. And that difference comes from the geometry.’

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The atmosphere, the qualities of light and outlooks, and the essentially open plan of most of the interior is almost Scandinavian in the cool precisions of its Kerto, glass, oak, and birch-ply materiality. Wilkinson prefers other precedents, notably Mies and Bruce Goff: ‘I love the Farnsworth House, he says, ‘but I like the crazy, relaxed quality of Goff. Things have moved on a lot since Mies. I think it’s OK to add more things. There’s a new palette. The Goff house [the 1949 Ruth van Sickle Ford House in Illinois] uses coal!

‘I have been a minimalist, but I’ve found that if you develop a narrative for a building, all sorts of things arise. And then you have to see them through. When you’re working on triangulations, you get fragmentation. They twist and fold. There are surprises in the space, and I think this is what gives it an uplifting quality. You feel the drama.’

It’s a quiet, if not occult, drama. The Maggie’s Centre’s obsessional glorification of geometry has not impinged on its functionality or simple sense of uncomplicated welcome. You enter by crossing a wooden bridge, with the glazed admin office on your right, and the central kitchen plainly visible before you step inside. When you cross the threshold, you immediately see a small library to your right, and the large group activity room to your left. The consulting rooms are beyond the kitchen.

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At almost every point inside the building there are at least two separate views out into the trees. There are slim, angular balconies on six of the nine sides of the building. And these inside-outside effects, and what Wilkinson describes as ‘the 3D quality of light and shadow’, are increased by the fact that the upper sections of the internal walls have clerestory glazing. The only aspect of the building that might be questioned are the acoustics: it seems rather noisy, but that could also be thought of as a homely quality.

It’s true that, like Rogers Stirk Harbours’ Maggie’s Centre at Hammersmith, Maggie’s Oxford could also be a rather spiffing Modernist private home in California. Nevertheless, they both work as sanctuaries for those who are ill, or in fear - not least from ‘architecture’ that is as crudely and unnecessarily threatening as the bunker at the corner of Roosevelt Drive.

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