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Steven Holl’s lantern-like Maggie’s Centre at Barts revealed

  • 1 Comment

This week, after a seven-year odyssey – first failing to get planning and then getting planning only to be subject to a judicial review – the Steven Holl-designed Maggie’s Barts has opened

Maggie’s Barts, offering support and respite for cancer sufferers and their relatives, is the 23rd Maggie’s Centre to open. The charity was set up by Charles Jencks with his wife Maggie who was herself diagnosed with cancer in 1993, and continued in her memory after her death in 1995.

The importance of physical environment is key to the work of Maggie’s, and previous centres – all of which are attached to specific hospitals – have been designed by a roll-call of famous architects from Frank Gehry to Zaha Hadid, and have included the Stirling Prize-winning Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners-designed centre at Charing Cross Hospital, which opened in 2008, and most recently the Foster + Partners-designed centre in Manchester, which opened in 2016.

For all the heat and controversy that surrounded the genesis of the Holl scheme – which at first failed to get planning in 2013 and then survived a judicial review when it finally did get planning – the result is a relatively quiet building, perhaps understandably so: a short, extruded shaft of milky glass – looking somewhat like a stylised vase on its tight site at St Bartholomew’s Hospital.

In fact its façade – composed of panels rising in a single sloping wrapped band, actual references noise: the staff of a musical score, with the random panels of colour that are embedded in it apparently inspired by Medieval ‘neume’ musical notation.

The development of this design can be nicely traced in a delicate series of façade studies – drawings and watercolours – by Holl and at the opening, this almost studiedly cerebral architect, drew a somewhat abstruse comparison between drawing and music. ­‘Drawing is a form of thought and music is a vital force,’ he said, without really explaining the parallel. 

Holl: Drawing is a form of thought and music is a vital force

Elsewhere he has also invoked the well-trod analogy between music and architecture – the latter being a sort of surround-sound art form – as well as referencing the adjacency of the new Centre to the medieval 12th century St Bartholomew-the-Less church – where early music would have been performed – as inspiration behind the façade’s design. But ultimately the reason for choosing a dominant musical analogy as a key design feature for the Centre’s façade remains as obscure as the glass it is made of. 

Maggies sha 5850

Maggies sha 5850

Source: Iwan Baan

What is clear though is that the adjacency of the historic siting has been a key factor in the overall building’s design development. The site, unlike that of many of the previous Maggie’s Centres, is literally embedded within the main hospital at Barts.

Founded in 1123, Barts is the oldest hospital in the UK, occupying a tight urban island south of Smithfield market packed with seven centuries-worth of differing structures. The main focus and open space within the hospital site is provided by a quadrangle designed by James Gibbs in the mid-18th century. The northern stretch of this contains the Great Hall and a staircase with a fine mural by Hogarth, and it is against the eastern end of this that Holl’s Maggie’s sits, on the site of an earlier 1960s office building. Holl references Donato Bramante’s 1510 Tempietto, sitting within the courtyard of the church of San Pietro in San Montorio in Rome in his thinking on how to transcend a tight site. ‘It showed me that architecture doesn’t have to be big to have meaning,’ he says.

 [Donato Bramante’s Tempietto] showed me that architecture doesn’t have to be big to have meaning

The sensitivity of this position led to a tortuous planning process, entangled also by there being another scheme commissioned from Hopkins Architects by the ’Friends of the Great Hall’, which proposed to redevelop the same site to provide new service facilities and better access to the Hall. The final agreed solution saw the Holl scheme incorporate a new stair and basement toilets to serve the Great Hall, as well as a new shared lift.

Nicely, the latter maintains a glazed side facing the restored façade of the original Gibb’s building, with a strip of light at the top of this, amusingly seeming to scan the old building, underlining the respectful hands-off yet jeek-by-jowl nature of the relationship of the old and the new. 

The lift also underlines how this Maggie’s, due to its confined site, is the first that is not laid out primarily over one floor, but over three, and its interior is dominated by a gently rising stair that threads around a central space – its rise paralleling that of the the rise of the musical ‘staff’ and ‘notation’ embedded in the glazed façade. The stair and much of the vertical interior dividing walls are made of bamboo – forming the inner element of what Holl descibes as the ’vessel within a vessel within a vessel’ concept of the design – outer glazed skin, concrete structure – itself cranked and softened into branching ‘hands’ – and the inner bamboo ‘basket’ wrapping. The pared-down palette and relatively raw finish to material surfaces is one described by Holl as ‘a manifesto of materials expressing themselves, everything that Postmodernism was not’. 

Maggies sha 5461

Maggies sha 5461

Source: Iwan Baan

The outer skin is itself a complex layering, with coloured film sandwiched between two layers of Okalux insulated glass – its ability to resist Solar gain described by Holl as ‘like polar bear hair’ – the complex curving of which in two dimensions was developed with the help of Arup. While the effect of the sandwiched elements of colour has none of the intensity of stained glass, which partly inspired it, at dusk from outside, a rich skin of pattern and ornament is created, with the Centre appearing like a glowing lantern or beacon, visible through railings from the street. 

As with other Maggie’s Centres, one of the key elements here will be the kitchen table (not yet installed when I visited) – designed for people to sit around, talk and share stories or just quietly have a cup of tea. This will stand at the centre of the building on plan, and together with adjacent kitchen area, further seating and a small counselling space, this central space occupies the majority of the ground floor.

At first floor level there are further seating areas and corners for people to sit – but large, wall-sized bamboo doors can also close off pockets of spaces for counselling.

Above this at second-floor level is a wood-burning stove and built-in bench, which forms a kind of living area – although one that can be cleared to allow space for Tai Chi and other communal classes or meetings. This faces out through a curving glass wall to a roof garden, designed by Darren Hawkes. Orientated north towards a view through trees to Smithfield Market and glimpses of the life of the city around, this space provides a nice release after rising up past walls of opaque glass, although its northern orientation will lessen its attraction for sitting out on cooler days.

The scheme has been delivered by the same team that Holl worked with on the Reid Building for Glasgow School of Art, with JM Architects as executive architect and Sir Robert McAlpine as main contractor. While the finishes of the main structure and elements are well honed, several of the curving junctions between glass, concrete and bamboo elements were at certain points still rawly awkward and unresolved during the press view, details that may yet be resolved in the final fitting-out. 

Overall though this is is a building which has a lightness and softness to it, a sensibility that exudes a warmth perfectly suited to the Maggie’s ethos, one that seems further underpinned by the curved and rounded elements which repeat and echo throughout, from the hollowed-out inset wall ‘lanterns’ to the brass floor studs on the noses to the stair treads.

This is is a building which exudes a warmth perfectly suited to the Maggie’s ethos

The dynamics of the façade-design, reinforcing the line of the stair, helps draw you up through the space, solving what Laura Lee, chief executive of Maggie’s, saw as one of the key issues around making a vertical Maggie’s Centre: ’The problem was a bit like when you are visiting someone’s house: how do people feel they have permission for people to go upstairs?’ The opaline walls also effortlessly flood the interior with light on this building-locked site, without sacrificing privacy for those inside. ‘It was made for the British gloom,’ as Lee says. 

The flipside is, however, that the interior revolves around circulation, with inevitably a lot of space given over to the stair. In some ways it seems, with the inset colour panels in its walls, that Holl has designed a contemporary version of Gibb’s adjacent stair hall, lined with Hogarth’s mural – except here it is all journey and no arrival – with no Great Hall to land in. The balance between movement and stasis and contemplation is further tilted too by the muffle of obscured glazing, meaning there are few places to sit and look out at the world, except at the entrance or if you venture out onto the roof garden. It will be interesting to return when the centre is fully furnished and functioning with 150 people using it each day for advice, counselling – or just to drop-in to have a cup of tea and a sit – to see how and if the dynamics of this space will practically and successfully function in use. 

Maggies sha 5401

Maggies sha 5401

Source: Iwan Baan

Architect’s view

The site in the centre of London is adjacent to the large courtyard of St Bartholomew’s Hospital. Founded in Smithfield in the 12th century, the hospital is the oldest in London and was founded at the same time as the St Bartholomew the Great Church in 1123. Rahere founded the church and hospital ‘for the restoration of poor men’. Layers of history characterise this unique site, connecting deeply to the Medieval culture of London.

While most all of the realised Maggie’s Centres have been horizontal buildings, the centre at Barts is more vertical, sitting on the historically charged site. It replaces a pragmatic 1960s brick structure adjacent to an 18th century stone structure by James Gibbs, holding the Great Hall and the famous Hogarth staircase.

The building is envisioned as a ‘vessel within a vessel within a vessel’. The structure is a branching concrete frame, the inner layer is bamboo and the outer layer is matte white glass with coloured glass fragments recalling the neume notation of Medieval music of the 13th century. The word neume originates from the Greek pnevma, which means ‘vital force’. It suggests a ‘breath of life’ that fills one with inspiration like a stream of air, the blowing of the wind. The outer glass layer is organised in horizontal bands like a musical staff while the concrete structure branches like the hand.

The building is envisioned as a ‘vessel within a vessel within a vessel’

The three-storey centre has an open curved staircase integral to the concrete frame with open spaces vertically lined in bamboo. The glass façade geometry, like a musical ’staff’, is in horizontal strips 90cm wide, which follow the geometry of the main stair along the north façade, while lifting up with clear glass facing the main square, marking the main front entry. There is a second entry on the west opening to the extended garden of the adjacent church.

The building tops out in a public roof garden open to a large room for yoga, Tai Chi, meetings, etc. The interior character of this building will be shaped by coloured light washing the floors and walls, changing by the time of day and season. Interior lighting will be organized to allow the coloured lenses together with the translucent white glass of the façade to present a new, joyful, glowing presence on this corner of the great square of St. Bartholomew’s Hospital.  

Steven Holl Architects

Maggies ground floor plan copy

Maggies ground floor plan copy

Source: Steven Holl Architects

Ground floor plan

Project data  

Start on site June 2015
Completion December 2017
Gross internal floor area 607m²
Architect Steven Holl Architects
Executive architect JM Architects   
Client Maggie Keswick Jencks Cancer Caring Centres Trust (Maggie’s)
Structural engineer Arup
M&E consultant Arup
QS Gardiner & Theobald
Historic building adviser Donald Insall Associates   
Landscape architect Darren Hawkes Landscapes   
Lighting consultant L’Observatoire International
Glass consultant Arup
Archaeology MOLA
CDM co-ordinator Floor Projects 
Main contractor Sir Robert McAlpine

  • 1 Comment

Readers' comments (1)

  • This, the latest manifestation of the Maggie's Centres, looks like it's strayed away from what was surely the original intent into more corporate or institutional territory - however novel and inventive it might be.

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