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Unsettling approach: Maggie’s Forth Valley by Garbers & James

EM Garbers and James   Forth Valley Maggies Centre   011
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The stunning site is a missed opportunity at Garbers & James’s Forth Valley Maggie’s Centre, says Alan Dunlop. Photography by Keith Hunter

In The Future of Architecture, published five years before his death, Frank Lloyd Wright advised architects to always ‘accept the gifts of nature’, adding that ‘in any and every case, the character of the site is the beginning of the building that aspires to be architecture’. Wise counsel.

The previous two Maggie’s projects located in Glasgow are on sites of very little character. Rem Koolhaas and Ellen van Loon’s building within Gartnavel General Hospital, completed in 2012, and Reiach and Hall’s at Monklands, completed in 2014, offer non-clinical and supportive environments for people with cancer, their families and staff. Neither building is institutional, despite their being sited within large hospital campuses, adjacent to characterless buildings, and marooned in oceans of asphalt car parking. Both succeed in producing excellence that lifts the spirit and have received deserved acclaim. 

Garbers and James

Koolhaas’s Maggie’s created ‘another world’ on a mound, within a small leftover patch of woodland with a restricted southern aspect that snatches small glimpses of the river Clyde. The architects delivered a building with an abundance of natural light, around a courtyard garden where ‘everything has been designed to show an enthusiasm for life’. Reiach and Hall’s Monklands Maggie’s also overcame the challenges offered by the existing landscape on the northern edge of unimposing hospital grounds. Keeping existing mature trees and working them into its design, the practice created a secret courtyard garden space, which ‘develops from the kitchen table outwards to the courtyards, the trees and beyond’. The building itself is in beautiful buff-coloured hand-made brick and blonde timber.

In contrast, the south-facing site of the new Maggie’s Centre in Larbert, by Garbers & James, is stunning. Part of a 28ha landscaped, ornamental waterfront and parkland, it is circled by mature lime and Scots pine trees and offers a habitat for wild birds. This Maggie’s fronts onto an ornamental loch and wetland surrounded by wild flowers, broom and bulrush. It is a site that Frank Lloyd Wright would relish. 

Garbers and james forth valley maggies centre interiors

Like all Maggie’s centres, the building is built adjacent to, or within the grounds of an NHS hospital – in this case, Forth Valley Royal. Curiously, it is not accessed via the hospital grounds but from the crossroads at Larbert village, up a half-mile of winding road, and in the Larbert House Estate. Larbert House itself is an impressive sandstone Georgian mansion, designed in 1820 by the great Scottish architect David Hamilton, and once the residence of industrialist Gilbert Stirling. Later owned by the Royal Scottish National Hospital, the building was allowed to decay until 2006, when it caught fire and the shell was destroyed. It was placed on Historic Environment Scotland’s Buildings at Risk Register in 2007, and was eventually bought by a local developer, Grant Keenan. It is undergoing restoration and rebuilding to incorporate 20 new flats. 

The design and construction of the Larbert Maggie’s has an interesting and protracted history. The charity originally appointed NORD, considering it to be the ‘perfect fit’, according to Maggie’s chief executive, Laura Lee. The practice developed the initial design and made the first planning application but was replaced in 2015, with Maggie’s citing NORD director Alan Pert’s growing academic commitments in Australia. London-based architect Garbers & James was then brought in. It had delivered the Maggie’s Centre in Swansea in 2011 following the death of original architect Kisho Kurokawa. Then in 2016, the contractor, the Dunne Group went bust, with Sir Robert McAlpine completing the job. 

Garbers and james forth valley maggies centre exteriors 2

The drawn plan for the new building is Y-shaped, and the first impression is that it is an elementary response to an extraordinary site. However, it is well considered, forming an open arm from the car park to the entrance, and addressing both the ring of mature trees to the east and the wetland to the south. Further investigation indicates that the plan is a development of NORD’s earlier design proposal. The final building is however very different from NORD’s planned ‘Pavilion on the Waterfront’. 

The architects worked with Daniel Libeskind on the Berlin Jewish Museum, and it shows

At ground level, the Y-shaped plan is not evident. You enter from the car park into a small space, fronted by a grey reception-like wall, which seems at odds with Maggie’s philosophy of openness and accessibility. However, it masks inglenook seating in front of a cast-iron fireplace. To the left of the entrance is a long kitchen table, the centrepiece of all Maggie’s Centre projects. Apart from the table and the kitchen workstation, there is not another right angle in the whole building. 

Garbers and James   Forth Valley Maggies Centre   026

Both Thore Garbers and Wendy James worked with Daniel Libeskind on the Berlin Jewish Museum early in their careers and later in New York; and it shows. The interior is beautifully made but the sharp-edged walls and partitions, although cleverly set out to offer glimpses into work, and social areas, and to host storage space and toilets are, like many Libeskind-inspired outputs, unsettling. 

The interior colour palette of muted greys and blues is punctuated by a bright orange, derived, the practice says, from looking at the sky on salmon fishing trips to Scotland and Norway. Berlin-born Garbers lyrically describes his inspiration for the building’s design as ‘three eagles settling by the waterway’, with the sharp-angled rooflights above the kitchen representing shoals of fish, darting across the green roof, which forms the building’s ‘fifth elevation’. 

Garbers and james forth valley maggies centre exteriors


Externally, however, the result is an inelegant brown rendered block building with an odd splayed and curved timber soffit which runs all the way around the three sides, fixed at the top with a 400mm-deep black pressed metal fascia panel with all stud fixing showing. Apart from the fascia fixing, the building is well constructed, and congratulations are due to the contractor and the shop-fitter involved in the interior fit-out. 

But, despite the wealth of opportunities offered by this stunning site, the building disappoints. The exterior is clumsy and unattractive, and the interior, although clever and beautifully made, is all sharp edges lacking warmth. Narrative and whimsy have resulted in a missed opportunity. 

Ground floor plan

Architects’ view

The footprint of the scheme provides opening wings of welcome and a sheltering canopy to the north, while the equally caring and sheltering wings to the east and south cradle views to a stand of mature trees and the loch respectively.

For times when the weather is bad, the internal haven evokes a warm, bone-dry boathouse, a sense increased by the 350mm-wide floorboards, which establish this visually, acoustically and in a tactile way.

Light washes through the scheme from the ever-changing skies to illuminate an internal palette of Scottish landscape colours through a ‘shoal’ of rooflights, allowing sunshine in.

At the heart of the scheme is the fire and the kitchen, as always in Maggie’s Centres, and users can wander around the whole of the internal perimeter to find their place and individual views. The construction is simple: a steel frame embedded within a highly insulated rendered and timber-clad rainscreen shell.

The local planning and building control officers in Falkirk supported Maggie’s at every turn and, despite fundraising and constructional difficulties (there were two significant bankruptcies along the way), which saw the centre delivered almost a year after it was originally planned, the unrelenting support of  Maggie’s, the hospital and the local community helped shepherd the centre to completion.

Maggie’s Centres are so individual; they are a collective effort more than almost any other building type we have known.

Wendy James and Thore Garbers, founding partners, Garbers & James

Garbers and James   Forth Valley Maggies Centre   010

Client’s view

The opportunities associated with such a special site have clearly been grasped by Garbers & James. The view across the water of the ornamental loch from the kitchen table – the heart of a Maggie’s – is possibly the most stunning outlook from any of our centres. More views of the surrounding landscape reveal themselves from other spaces. We envisage that everyone will find their own favourite.

The architects’ attention to detail shines through in every aspect. Exacting standards have been achieved by working closely with all the specialist contractors involved. We are immensely proud of the quality that has been achieved by everyone involved in the realisation of this special building.

More than anything we think that our architects have brilliantly met the primary aim of our brief, which is to provide a centre that offers a warm and welcoming place where we can provide the free, practical, emotional and social support for people with cancer and their families and friends. Maggie’s Forth Valley will have its own special serenity within its incredible landscape setting.

Chris Watson, property director, Maggie’s Centres 

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The bird wing-like striated cornice uses straight line geometries to place each individual Douglas Fir element, with the varying rise and fall angles providing the movement in the scheme.

The cornice is also the element from which the geometrical direction of the ‘shoal of rooflights’ can be deduced, as the windows are extruded through the cornice, creating individual, monastic-like contemplative seating places inside.

In fact it is consideration of a dynamic cornice detail that provides a link in language to Garbers & James’s Swansea Maggie’s. There was a question of an expanding curved taper that gave another form of curved wing its energy, but in concrete. Here all constituent elements, including the mushroom-like striations and the flat plate eaves member are dead straight, but they have a common intention of movement.

In recognition of  Maggie’s principal fund raiser, the Walk the Walk charity, we created a long ‘walking table’ for the kitchen area. We used traditional jointing techniques, with no fixings or adhesive required. The table’s assembly adds to the bone-dry feeling that we held constantly in mind, and uses the magnificent Douglas fir boards from the floor, with the finely coloured lacquered palette for the connectors.

Thore Garbers and Wendy James, partners, Garbers & James

Cornice detail

Table details

Project data

Start on site May 2015
Completion March 2017
Gross internal floor area 269m2
Procurement SBBC Standard Building Contract with Quantities for use in Scotland. Two-stage tender, with competitive first stage and a negotiated second stage. After the original contractor ceased trading, a second contractor was appointed using a bespoke Construction Management Contract
Construction cost Undisclosed
Architect Garbers & James
Client Maggie’s Centres
Structural engineer Jacobs
MEP consultant KJ Tait
Project manager and quantity surveyor CBA
CDM co-ordinator CDM Scotland
Main contractor Sir Robert McAlpine; Dunne Group until July 2016
CAD software used formZ and Vectorworks
Annual CO2 emissions 27.46kg/m² (EPC assessment) 

More Maggie’s

View drawings, details and photos of 14 Maggie’s Centres in the AJ Buildings Library

Maggie’s Glasgow by OMA, Maggie’s Lanarkshire by Reich and Hall, and Maggie’s Aberdeen by Snohetta are FREE TO VIEW until Sunday

This building study was published in the Buildings that care issue – click here to buy a copy 

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