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Complementary health

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Maggie Jencks' experiences as a cancer patient nurtured her vision of a network of centres for those likely to die from the disease, now made reality by her husband Charles

'At the moment most hospital environments say to the patient, in effect: 'How you feel is unimportant. You are not of value. Fit in with us, not us with you.' With very little effort and money, this could be changed to something like: 'Welcome. And don't worry.

We are here to reassure you and your treatment will be good and helpful to you.'' In A View from the Front Line (1995), Maggie Keswick Jencks wrote from direct experience of the ordeal of cancer. In that same year, indeed, she died of the breast cancer she thought she had defeated in the late '80s. In 1993, the disease returned. She was given only months to live, but fought on for two years - worthwhile years, says her husband, architecture critic Charles Jencks, for Maggie Jencks herself and for her husband and two children. 'When you're facing death, time matters, ' says Charles Jencks. 'For us those two years were precious.'

When Maggie Jencks was given the diagnosis of terminal illness - 'it hits you like a punch in the stomach', she recalled - the only place in the hospital she could sit and try to come to terms with it was the hospital corridor. There was nowhere to weep, nowhere where you could seek advice, support, comfort. The idea of the Maggie's Centres - Frank Gehry's, opening this month in Dundee, is the third - emerged from that experience and from Maggie Jencks' conviction that, apart from medical treatment - she paid tribute to the work of her doctors and was no advocate of alternative 'miracle' cures - cancer patients (and their families) need information and advice, therapy and the support of other people. The centres were seen as complementary to hospital care, close to hospitals but not part of them.

They should be comfortable, welcoming places, very different in character from the institutional spaces of the NHS - and they should 'belong' to the people using them, not to the hospital.

Charles Jencks' role in the development of the Maggie's Centres programme has been both inspirational and practical: he initially funded the first centre at Edinburgh's Western General Hospital, where his wife had been treated. The couple met in the early 1970s - Charles Jencks was teaching at the AA, where Maggie had enrolled as a student - and married in 1978. The extraordinary garden at Portrack House in Dumfriesshire (which had been Maggie's parents' home) was their joint creation. Maggie Jencks' two passions, for gardening and for China (where she travelled extensively), came together in her book The Chinese Garden (1978, recently republished).

'Maggie's Centres are about empowering people, ' says Charles Jencks. 'They're about harnessing energy - they're places that can make a real difference to people's lives.'

Jencks insisted on the name of the centres. 'I wanted them to be personal, not anonymous units, ' he says. 'Maggie would have hated it - she never pushed herself forward - but it really does make a difference. At first, we wanted to do something for Western General, which had done so much for Maggie.'

Laura Lee, who had nursed Maggie Jencks during her last illness and become a friend, became involved - she is now the chief executive of the Maggie's Centres charity. A disused stable block at the hospital was converted (and later extended) by Richard Murphy as the first centre, opened in 1996. It is now used by 10,000 people annually. The second centre, in Glasgow, was another conversion, this time by Page and Park.

Typically, says Jencks, the centres cost about £750,000 to build and £200,000 a year to run. They are seen as very much local institutions and the aim is to make them self-supporting - a local press appeal raised £500,000 for Maggie's, Glasgow.

Current plans could take the total of Maggie's Centres to 13. 'We envisage up to 30, ' says Jencks. 'It's a frightening thought.'

Page and Park is doing Maggie's, Inverness.

The centre in Kirkcaldy has been designed by Zaha Hadid. Maggie's Centres are not, however, purely Scottish in scope. Hawkins\ Brown is working on a centre for Sheffield and Richard Rogers Partnership on one at Charing Cross Hospital in London, while Daniel Libeskind worked on a scheme for Addenbrookes Hospital, Cambridge (where there are problems in finding a site). 'Sceptics think we're obsessed with architecture, ' says Jencks. 'But these are buildings that can have a huge impact on people's lives. You can't cure people by giving them a nice building but I believe that the spirit of a place does have a therapeutic role.'

Frank Gehry, a close friend of the Jenckses, was unlikely to be omitted from this distinguished list of practices. 'Frank said he kept dreaming about Maggie, ' says Jencks, 'and that those dreams helped shape his scheme, which changed several times. He sees it as a lighthouse, which is a very appropriate metaphor for what it does.'

It is hard to imagine a building by Gehry, Hadid or Libeskind being anything but inspirational, but are star architects able to adapt to a highly practical brief and a modest budget? 'Buildings can be both expressive and homely, ' Jencks responds. 'We're really developing a new building type. The architecture has to serve the users but should also reflect the radical ideas behind the centres.'

Jencks seeks to play down his role in the entire project: the combination of excellent trustees, prominent supporters (such as Kirsty Wark and JK Rowling) and energetic groups of local supporters is what will advance the cause, he says. Yet he has set his stamp on Maggie's Centres, making them potentially one of the most remarkable programmes of architectural patronage of recent times. 'Maggie always said the hardest thing was to decide to fight the disease, ' he says. 'I tell architects that's the key message.

It's about treating a patient as a whole person, not just a medical problem, and increasing if possible the length of their life and the quality of it.'

Jencks' lively interest in scientific and medical issues reinforces his passionate support of the Maggie's Centres project. 'One in three people is likely to suffer from cancer, ' he says. 'We could soon live to be 130, then die of cancer. We have to face up to the disease, not shunt it out of sight. Architecture can give people strength and help them challenge their fate.Maggie did just that and, for those who loved her, these buildings embody something of her spirit.'

Charles Jencks' The Garden of Cosmic Speculation and Maggie Keswick's The Chinese Garden are reviewed on page 62.

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