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Handled with care

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Products building study

Five years after completing the first Maggie's Centre for cancer care in Edinburgh, Richard Murphy Architects has extended the building, doubling its size but retaining its domestic feel When it opened its doors in October 1996 the first Maggie Jencks Cancer Care Centre was something of a maverick. Maggie's Centre, as it is now known, was conceived by the late Maggie Jencks as a place that cancer sufferers could go to for help and solace, as well as seek access to independent and alternative sources of advice and treatment.

Officially part of Edinburgh Western General Hospital, it was to provide an informal domestic environment in contrast with the institutional nature of many National Health Service buildings.

Maggie and Charles Jencks, along with Laura Lee of Maggie's Centre, who runs the project, appointed Richard Murphy Architects to design what is now referred to as 'Phase 1' (AJ 13.3.97). The Edinburgh Western General Hospital Trust donated a site on the hospital's southern boundary, already occupied by a small, stone mid-19th-century stable-block. Murphy's response was to create a 'building within a building', inserting a structure of steel, glass, glass blocks and timber sliding doors behind the existing stone walls - a strategy which did not offer an obvious means of expansion. As Murphy points out: 'When we did Phase 1 it wasn't Phase 1. That was it.'

Maggie's Centre flourished. Its success was such that an ambitious building programme is now under way, with various big-name architects designing centres around the country - Frank Gehry in Dundee, Daniel Libeskind in Cambridge, Page and Park in Glasgow and Inverness, and now Zaha Hadid in Kirkcaldy.

The Edinburgh Centre rapidly outgrew its home: some 50 or 60 people visit the centre each day - half have an appointment while the others simply 'drop in'.

Richard Murphy Architects was asked to look at the possibility of adding two large meeting rooms, along with additional office space and a consulting room for visiting therapists.

Faced with the challenge of doubling the building's size while maintaining its domestic feel, the architect decided to provide the additional space in two separate extensions: one to the west of the existing stable block and one to the north-east. The western extension is simply 'added on' to the end of the stable, elongating both storeys to provide administration space on the top floor and a consulting room below. The extension to the north is linked to the existing building, but is an independent structure containing a single, divisible large meeting room.

This arrangement is efficient, in that the necessary accommodation has been provided with the bare minimum of additional circulation space. Phase 1 was remarkable for having no circulation space at all: the apparently extravagant gesture of having a double staircase in a small building was justified on the grounds that it also functioned as library space. Both architect and client are wedded to the idea that much of the centre's noninstitutional feel stems from the absence of corridors, and even - to a large extent - the absence of doors. The client is more than happy to accept the trade-off in terms of privacy. 'It's like being at home, ' says Lee. 'It's quite nice to hear laughter coming from another room.' (She is also happy to forgo the signage - generally considered essential in public buildings: 'You'd ask where the loo was if you were at somebody's house.') As was previously the case, all parts of the building are served by the main entrance space. Still the heart of the building, this cheery space is much the same as before, although its impact has dramatically changed.Mark Baines, reviewing Phase 1 for the AJ, wrote: 'In contrast to the robust austerity and deceptively small scale of the exterior, the full-height, top-lit entrance hallway is instantly revealed as a surprisingly expansive, luminous and colourful space.'

In its new guise, the facade has lost its self-effacing reticence and gives a realistic idea as to what to expect inside. While the stable block is still visible, it is easily overlooked - both bookended and dwarfed by its more exuberant additions.

Richard Murphy describes the extensions as 'continuing the language' of the existing building, but this is a little misleading. They draw on the Phase 1 palette of lead roof, steel frame, glass blocks and Douglas fir-framed windows. But the materials are put together in a way to create a building which, in contrast to its previous inscrutability, is rich in connotations. Part Little House on the Prairie, part Frank Lloyd Wright (the roof prow to the western elevation, in particular, is reminiscent of Wright's Unitarian Church in Madison, Wisconsin), this is a rich mix which is one step away from being gardengnome cute. It works. This is partly because it is integral to the centre's ethos that friendliness should triumph over restraint, partly because it is still small enough to feel like the building at the bottom of the garden - it is doubtful whether such an idiosyncratic approach would be aesthetically desirable or economically viable on a building twice its size - and partly because Murphy is very good at that sort of thing.

Charles Jencks favoured Murphy for the original commission because of his expertise as a 'jeweller of the small'. Lee feels that 'the domestic scale is very important. I don't think any of the buildings we do should be any bigger that this.' (It will be interesting to see how superstars, used to designing major public buildings, will tackle a brief which explicitly prioritises opportunities for human interaction over concern with form. ) With the addition of Phase 2, Murphy has transformed the Edinburgh Centre from garden shed to gazebo - but he has not tried to do anything more than that. Previously it was a little apologetic, eager not to intrude.

Now it is a chirpy presence, posing a defiant challenge to the institutional architecture of the hospital across the road.

Structure The Phase 2 extension to the Maggie Jencks Cancer Care Centre consists of two separate sections. The main extension is to the north from the east end of the original centre; the other is to the west, as a continuation of the original building.

In both cases, the structure of the building consists of a steel frame with infill block or timber walls. The frame is supported on concrete pad foundations and the walls on traditional strip foundations, as the site investigations had indicated that there was good bearing at a reasonable depth. To add some architectural drama to the extension, a single compound column provided on the west elevation catches the ridge beam, a floor beam and beams from the north and south elevations, supporting the external wall. The junction of the new and old was easily achieved, as the original conversion had allowed a close inspection of the old fabric, and the new inserted structure was as detailed.

The north extension, enclosing the meeting rooms, has a steel structure which includes curved roof beams. The junction of the new and old in this case proved slightly more difficult, as the original work had not anticipated a future connection. The ground floor to the west extension is a reinforced concrete slab, and the first floor to the west extension and the ground floor to the north extension are in timber.


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