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Laura Lee: 'exploring social problems is central to Maggie’s architecture'

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Star client Laura Lee has delivered an inspirational speech on the role of architects in designing the award-winning Maggie’s Centres for cancer care

The high-profile, driving force behind the much-applauded approach to designing palliative environments for people with cancer told architects their crucial role was to investigate our social problems.

Speaking at the AJ100 Breakfast Club, the Maggie’s Centres chief executive said the success of the award winning programme – which has landed both the Stirling and Doolan prizes with projects by RSHP and OMA – was thanks to its solid brief and a consistent client.

Function was just one element of the Maggie’s brief, said Lee, who started out as a specialist nurse before meeting Maggie Keswick Jencks and running the charity set up in her name.  ‘It’s much more about what you want the buildings to feel.’

Explaining architect’s role in the success story, Lee told representatives of the UK’s largest architectural: ‘You are the investigators of the social problem.’

She continued: ‘Your role is helping people deal with the ramifications of cancer. Beyond just putting up buildings, each of our architects investigates and proposes their solutions for dealing with our social problems.’

The first Maggie’s centre, by Richard Murphy in 1996, occupied a former stable block at the Western General Hospital in Edinburgh. Lee spent ten years as the building’s greeter, which she explained earned it a special place as her favourite project.

Describing the subsequent centres by Frank Gehry in Dundee, Zaha Hadid in Fife and projects by Peirs Gough and Richard MacCormac, she said all the architects Maggie’s had worked with had encouraged the charity to take calculated risks.

Describing the decision to appoint OMA’s Rem Koolhaas to design the Doolan Prize-winning Maggie’s centre at Gartnavel Hospital in Glasgow, Lee said people warned her the influential designer was ‘quite cold, masculine and brutal.’

She continued: ‘We took a calculated risk. We gave Koolhaas our brief which says no corridors and he came up with a building which was one long corridor. But by taking this risk he has given us a really tender building which is surprising in its quality.

‘It is strong, something people you can lean on and will support you. It is a place you can come in and be yourself.’

Lee, quoting Maggie Keswick Jencks who died of cancer in 1995 to explain the charity’s inspiration, said: ‘Above all, what matters is not to lose the joy of living in the fear of dying.’

Asked by Devereux Architects design director Peter Hughes whether the centres’ successes were linked to their isolation from hospitals as stand-alone pavilions, Lee agreed the separation from main hospital buildings allowed the structures to challenge conventional approaches to designing oncological care environments.

Typical cancer care environments could be intimidating and create anxiety for patients which is one of the reasons why the centres aim to be home-like, comfortable and welcoming.

Benedict Zucchi, leader of BDP’s healthcare studio, asked to what extent Maggie’s architects engaged with stakeholders when designing the centres.

Lee again said architects must investigate social problems by engaging with end users but warned against the pitfalls of ‘design by committee’.

‘Take on board all these views but don’t let them become disasterous,’ she advised.

The charity is currently building a Wilkinson Eyre-designed centre in Oxford and a project by Edward Cullinan in the Tyne Valley. Centres by Reiach and Hall in Lanarkshire, Snohetta in Aberdeen and Benedetta Tagliabue in Barcelona are also planned.

The event was sponsored BST Global, Bespoke, Hewlett Packard, Miele and Staron and Radianz by Samsung.


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