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Foster: 'Quality in care and design can go hand-in-hand'

Foster + Partners' Maggie's Centre
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Norman Foster discusses how his own experience of cancer informed Foster + Partners’ approach to the Manchester Maggie’s Centre. Interview by Laura Mark

The project is just a few miles from where you grew up in Levenshulme and is your first major scheme in Manchester. What influence did this connection have on you?
There is an inherent warmth about the people and their attitudes in the north. I would like to think that this might have been translated into the architecture of this building. 

Your buildings are normally much larger in scale. How do you translate this to a small project like a Maggie’s Centre?
The reality of the practice is a mixture of projects – some very large, some small. By their nature the more epic ones command more attention, but the smaller ones are every bit as important, and in the case of Maggie’s even more so. In the context of smaller works see also our recent project for Chateau Margaux. 

This building is a refuge where you are comforted

You’ve battled bowel cancer yourself and seen your first wife die from the disease. Has this experience changed how you approached the project - did it give you a different perspective on what would be needed and what the building’s users would be feeling?
The purpose of this building is a refuge where you are hopefully comforted and informed – particularly after your diagnosis. Before this you will have received the life-changing news in an institutional environment. Having been through that experience, I would like to apply my skills as an architect to create hospitals that put the interest of the customer first – to try and create a more human place. From my experience with airports I know that it is possible without compromising workability. Maggie’s in Manchester seeks to be a step in that direction. For so many there is life after cancer even if that is a changed life. I believe that quality in care and design can go hand-in-hand and together be more effective. 

The project architect mentioned that the scheme was designed around the concept of distraction, aiming to create ways to offer a distraction for cancer patients and their families. Did this stem from your experience?
I know that my colleague’s comments were sincere and well-intentioned, but it is for me less about distraction and more about a setting that might be helpful and comforting in a situation where you have heard life-threatening news. 

The structure and its large timber wings are almost aircraft-like. Was this one of your intentions?
No, but I love the analogy – maybe some influences are subliminal. 

Landscape is key to this project. Did this come from you? 
Throughout the centre, there is a focus on natural light, greenery and views to the garden. The plan is punctuated by landscaped courtyards, and the entire western elevation extends into a wide veranda, which is sheltered from the rain by the deep overhang of the roof. Sliding glass doors open the building up to its green setting. Each treatment and counselling room on the eastern side faces its own private garden. The greenhouse to the sunny south of the building provides a garden retreat, a space for people to gather, to work with their hands and enjoy the therapeutic qualities of nature and the outdoors while protected from the rain. The design team has been working with landscape designer Dan Pearson to achieve these ends. 

I envisaged a Maggie’s Centre not only full of flowers but with these being grown by the users

Where did the idea for a glasshouse come from?
At home our spaces are full of flowers. Visitors to hospitals take flowers to bring a touch of nature to the patient’s room. I envisaged a Maggie’s Centre not only full of flowers but with the flowers being grown and tended to by the users in a greenhouse that was integral to the centre. 

How do you hope the centre will be received?
My hope? That it will be received sympathetically as a centre for hope – a fitting tribute to Maggie Keswick Jencks, who I remember with affection, and to Charles Jencks for his kindness and wisdom in creating the charity of Maggie’s.

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