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Work completes on Heatherwick Studio’s long-awaited Maggie’s Leeds


Construction has finished on a new timber-frame Maggie’s centre, designed by Heatherwick Studio, in the grounds of St James’s University Hospital, Leeds 

The long-awaited Maggie’s Leeds is one of the cancer care charity’s largest centres to date, and features a series of ‘stepped planters’ which will provide both shared and private spaces. It is also the first healthcare building completed by Thomas Heatherwick’s practice.

Although it took only eight weeks for the construction team to put together the pre-fabricated structure on site, the 462m² scheme had been on the drawing board for several years.

An application for the project, which is understood to have had a budget of around £6 million, was approved in 2015 and the charity originally planned to open the centre in 2017. It was later rescheduled to complete early last year but has only just finished.

The plant-filled scheme, developed with engineers AKT II and Max Fordham, sits next to the hospital’s Bexley Wing among a number of multi-storey buildings. Conceived as three mushroom-shaped volumes, it replaced a small sloping island of grass set within the wider built-up site.

Heatherwick, founder of Heatherwick Studio, said: ’Our aim was to build a home for people affected by cancer that would be soulful and welcoming, unlike other typical clinical environments.

’By only using natural, sustainable materials and immersing the building in thousands of plants, there was a chance for us to make an extraordinary environment capable of inspiring visitors with hope and perseverance during their difficult health journeys.’

Rob Partridge, design director at AKT II, said: ’The technical innovation behind the structural design of this project is evident in the impressive cantilevering ribs which rely on a ”modern weave” of different wood species working together to produce an enhanced stiffness – way above that of traditional softwood products.’

Heatherwick studio maggies leeds ©hufton+crow 007

Heatherwick studio maggies leeds ©hufton+crow 007

To complement Heatherwick’s design, award-winning landscape designer Marie-Louise Agius of Balston Agius has created the surrounding ‘deliberately lush’ gardens.

Agius said she intended to create ‘an oasis in the concrete desert’ through planting a woodland of trees and creating planted roof spaces. 

Heatherwick is the latest in a long line of high-profile designers commissioned by Maggie’s. Others include Norman Foster, Frank Gehry, Richard Rogers, Zaha Hadid and Amanda Levete.

Maggie’s Leeds is the charity’s 26th completed centre in the UK.

9. maggie's leeds timber structure heatherwick studio

9. maggie’s leeds timber structure heatherwick studio

The designer’s view

The brief was to create ’a home that people wouldn’t dare build for themselves’ to welcome an expected 110 visitors each day.

The site chosen for the new centre was the last patch of greenery at the hospital – a grassy hill next to the car park, bounded by roads on two sides and surrounded by large buildings. The six-metre difference in level across the site would typically dictate a building dug into the slope. Instead, the studio chose to follow its natural contours, so that at the highest point visitors would have views of the Yorkshire Dales and a connection with the world beyond the hospital.

The pillars of support at Maggie’s are the counselling rooms so these were placed, like three pavilions, organised around a heart and at changing levels of the slope. The space between them accommodates the common areas of the centre, resulting in an inviting open space, simple for visitors to navigate, connecting all the areas to the garden. Externally, this gives the building a different character from every angle. Two entrances were also created: a front door and a rear entrance for staff and regular visitors.

Instead of a single monolithic canopy, the roof is composed of three overlapping gardens

Heatherwick studio maggies leeds ©hufton+crow 019

The challenge was to span and enclose the level changes and reinstate the greenery. Instead of a single monolithic canopy, the roof is composed of three overlapping gardens which step down and overhang to shelter communal areas. In this way, the hospital does not lose its last green space – it is lifted up, filled with woodland plants and made more accessible and inviting.

The relationship between the centre’s architecture and the experience for visitors extends beyond the uplifting effect of its garden. The front door, for example, is a psychological threshold – the point at which someone might start to accept a cancer diagnosis. Not everyone will be ready to open the door straight away, so there is a bench to sit outside, or a private path to wander quietly through the gardens.

The entrance wall is transparent and the door is moved to the side under a lower roof, where it is less intimidating. Inside, visitors are not confronted by a conventional reception space; instead, they find a welcoming window seat, a noticeboard and a view through to the heart of the centre, with its communal table in the arc of a staircase leading to the kitchen. The kitchen table, a feature of all Maggie’s centres, represents another threshold; the point where visitors feel ready to share their experiences. Everything is on display, so there is no awkward rummaging through cupboards to find a mug, and a clerestory fills the space with natural light. Above this, there is a private space for staff to rest and gather strength, and a sheltered roof garden accessible to all.

The entire building superstructure was made in Switzerland and fixed together on site in just eight weeks

The road running along the site presented a challenge for the building’s construction – as the main ambulance route, it could not be disrupted by months of heavy vehicles. The team designed a structure that could be built off-site and assembled quickly on a concrete slab and retaining wall with minimal disruption. The entire building superstructure was manufactured in Switzerland and fixed together on site in just eight weeks. The structure is supported by glulam fins, whose modulations give the feeling of trunks rising up from the ground to support the gardens overhead. The structure is mostly made of sustainably forested spruce, a material that will expand and contract with the seasons, as if alive.

Heatherwick studio maggies leeds ©hufton+crow 026

Heatherwick Studio recently completed Maggie’s Yorkshire centre in Leeds

The studio looked at the qualities that make a building a home: the use of warm, natural materials; the way that objects are used to express individuality; the combination of private spaces and places where people can come together; and gentle lighting. Between the timber fins are shelves, lined, as you might at home, with knick-knacks, pot plants and the interesting things that people bring to the centre.

When it came to lighting, the studio had the idea that the wooden cores could glow, as if they were emitting light. This is achieved by integrating the lighting with the shelves and interior edges of the roofs. The designers had to work backwards, specifying how the lights and services would be integrated at an early stage in the process, as the building was still taking shape.

2. maggie's leeds ground floor plan heatherwick studio

2. maggie’s leeds ground floor plan heatherwick studio

Ground floor plan

Heatherwick leeds maggies

Visualisation left, as completed right.

Visualisation left, as completed right


Readers' comments (3)

  • really rather lovely isn't it. good work.

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  • I agree with you, Chris - and from the photos, beautifully scaled, integrated in design, detailed and built. It is rich in ideas look effortlessly resolved

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  • It would be rightly shameful to be critical of the aims of the charity- but isn’t this just another Heatherwick exercise in wilful composition meeting tricky material/construction via a channeling of the rightly cancelled bridge?

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