Client, Charles Jencks and architect, Ivan Harbour discuss Maggie’s West London, designed by Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners
Client comment: Charles Jencks
Maggie’s West London is one of Richard Rogers’ best buildings. My only misgiving is that they never put rugs on the ceiling, like the work of Bruce Goff, to deal with the reverberation. There is too much concrete and too many hard surfaces. The sound reverberates around, and that is the biggest problem. This is my criticism of all architects - and myself. We have an aversion to soft materials, and they don’t often get sound right in the room, which is understandable because it’s not our role.
In early discussions with Richard and Ivan [Harbour], I gave them a copy of Maggie’s [Keswick Jencks] book on gardens. They realised the site was a mess and needed to be acoustically contained. They made these orange walls, an echo of the orange red of Imperial China. I was nervous about this, but it seems to work and it has held up amazingly well.
Ivan redesigned the roof and produced this pavilion roof, which is magical. Functionally it has a slight problem in that, as you enter the front door, there’s an opening and the rain hits you, but you can always get out an umbrella. The opening in the wall opposite the entrance creates the most magical event with frosted white glass; it’s unparalleled. The black silhouette of cars and buses, as the streetscape goes by, is like an animated Chinese scroll, and makes the most poetic scene.
This building gets openness versus closeness about right. The plan of space cells overlapping is as good as the Dutch Structuralists and also Aldo van Eyck. To the far right of the building, there’s a room that’s used for probably six major functions over a week, from relaxation classes to Tai Chi to art therapy groups. The room changes by the day; it’s very multi-functional.
Maggie’s West London is the most visited of all the centres, maybe because it’s in London. We haven’t had a bad building yet, and I think this comes from two aspects: the competitiveness of architects and their inspiration by the challenge of cancer care.
I am surprised at the way that Maggie’s Centres have expanded so fast. We had the idea of setting up just one and then, after Maggie died, we made the decision to set up a second in Glasgow. Then we realised we needed many. The ideal is to have 55 Maggie’s, one at every major NHS hospital. That won’t happen in my lifetime, but maybe it will happen. There is a worldwide need for such centres looking after the five big chronic diseases. One in two people will get cancer and, because we are living longer, we all might have a member of our family diagnosed with the disease. It affects every aspect of life and is a social problem as well as an economic one.
A new edition of The Architecture of Hope, by Charles Jencks and Edwin Heathcote, will be published by Frances Lincoln in January 2015.
Ivan Harbour, partner, RSHP
Maggie’s West London marked the charity’s first foray into England. How did the site compare with other Maggie’s sites?
We visited the first Maggie’s Centre in Edinburgh and then Frank Gehry’s Maggie’s in Dundee on a stunning location overlooking the River Tay. So we went from a dream site in Dundee to our corner site off the Fulham Palace Road. It felt like we had to pull a rabbit out of the hat. It’s the usual thing: the more challenging the site, the more radical the solution. We had a huge number of constraints, but this has produced a fantastic building.
Did the other Maggie’s Centres influence your design?
Maggie’s philosophy is of an open house that can also be private. The biggest ‘takeaway’ from our visit to Edinburgh Maggie’s was this idea of a house, where the first thing you’re offered is a cup of tea; also the importance of a fireplace and the half-landing, which creates a relationship between upstairs and downstairs that allows passive surveillance on what’s going on downstairs. This layering and design conundrum that all Maggie’s have is a desire for a continuity of spaces that are both ‘open house’ but can also be private. We wanted to create a comforting shell, a building that hugs itself around the corner with spaces created within. It’s a simple concept that drove the scheme from beginning to end.
How important is Dan Pearson’s garden design to the project?
The integration of the landscape and architecture is probably the best the practice has ever done. Without the garden, it wouldn’t be anything. Dan completely understood that space and was super-motivated by it.
In hindsight, is there anything you would change?
had wanted to keep the outside noise down by bouncing sound off the walls. However the roof bounces the sound in, so it’s not as quiet as we expected.
We also put the fireplace in the wrong place, which means that the grill appears on the facade as you approach the building and it looks awful. We should have put it on the east side, where it wouldn’t be seen. Also, the glazing system is big technology in a small building - it should have been more domestic.
Maggie’s West London won the Stirling Prize. Are you aware of its influence on other Maggie’s?
No, I’m not. But I do know we had the first wood-burning stove, while other Maggie’s had gas fires. We were also the first where the architect and landscape designer worked together from the outset. Many people have visited the building and I heard that Norman Foster had visited because he’s doing a Maggie’s in Manchester. The building has moved people, and I think that’s special.