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Richard Rogers on Maggie's Centre and the architecture of hope

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As a new book on the architecture of Maggie’s Centres is published, Richard Rogers and Ivan Harbour look back at the genesis of their Stirling Prize-winning centre in London

The Architecture of Hope: Maggie’s Cancer Caring Centres, by Edwin Heathcote and Charles Jencks, £35, April 2010, Frances Lincoln, www.franceslincoln.com

The majority of us will have been touched in some way by cancer, so it is easy to sympathise with Maggie Keswick Jencks’ disbelief in the institutional surroundings where diagnosis is declared, and her extraordinary drive to provide an alternative portal through which those in similar circumstances could share their experiences and seek knowledge of, and respite from, the condition.

Jencks believed in the power of architecture to transform lives and her legacy is evident in the series of small, welcoming and comforting places within the grounds of existing hospitals where cancer patients, family members and friends can visit. She described these places as domestic in scale, making people feel instantly at home.

The brief for the Maggie’s Centre at Charing Cross Hospital in Hammersmith, west London, as with all Maggie’s Centres, was unique and particular. It described the sense and nature of the spaces needed to create an appropriate environment without resorting to area schedules and data sheets; it was up to us to interpret the practical realisation of these spaces. Our key aspirations included: a desire to create scales of space to allow visitors to find their own special place within a building that has an open door and open plan arrangement; the offering of a cup of tea as part of the welcome and introduction to the building; and the notion of the ‘hearth’ as a focal space.

During the early stages of the design process, we suggested that the centre should include several hearths with real fires. Maggie’s seemed a little concerned, which came as a surprise until we discovered that gas ‘fireplaces’ had been installed in the other centres. As a result, the wood-burning stove, with its unique smell, that we have incorporated into the kitchen is the first ‘real’ fireplace in a Maggie’s Centre.

The Hammersmith centre is also the first Maggie’s Centre that has to engage not just with close proximity to a large teaching hospital, its car parks and temporary outbuildings, but also with the overwhelming dominance of a major traffic artery – Fulham Palace Road. This creates a noisy and polluted streetscape. In response, we set out to create an external environment that literally wraps the building up and protects it from the outside world. It is the relationship between this contained external environment, the internal spaces that are planned to the rhythm of a small domestic grid and a floating roof, which controls light and views, that give the centre its particular qualities.

The ‘feeling’ of the place, while impossible to describe, is evident when you are there.The naturally lit, intimate oasis is intended to lift people into a calmer world when they enter. Flexibility of the overall space was fundamental to the design. The centre contains 30 or so identifiable places ranging in scales of intimacy and size from about 1m2 up to 50m2. Each room has an external area with an individual plan. When designing any building, it is not possible to predict exactly how it will be used; however, at Maggie’s London, by suggesting many opportunities through the multiplicity of perceptible spaces, the centre has a flexibility to respond to visitors in the way that they choose.

We imagined the floor plan of the centre as a series of four ‘tables’, the legs of which embrace the sitting rooms, consulting rooms, library and bathrooms. The kitchen, a double-height space at the heart of the building, is framed by the edges of the tables. The upper-level spaces – sitting rooms and workspace – are found on the table tops, where each is split into an internal space and an external terrace. The large roof appears to ‘hover’ over the building, signalling the corner site where Maggie’s London stands as a marker or gatehouse for the main hospital. A colour-rendered wall wraps the total space, which includes four distinct courtyards, and protects it from this exposed location. The wall contains three openings, each addressing a different aspect of the site and each creating its own internal/external response.

Internally, we chose to use neutral, clean, but non-institutional finishes. Hence, the heated concrete floors and ceilings. The intention – in an age when IKEA represents affordable design in the home – was to convey a warm and recognisable image to the broadest range of visitors using the centre.

The landscaping, by Dan Pearson Studio, is an integral part of the design and provides a cohesive link with the hospital site. With the support of the Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust, we included additional land, particularly to the south of the building, to establish a clearly defined approach and area of public space.

The building is surrounded by multi-stemmed, fast-growing birch trees, which filter out noise pollution from the road. Mature plane trees line the route from the hospital to a courtyard surrounded by white-flowered magnolia trees. Stone sculptures and wooden benches punctuate the route along the winding path to the front door.

Maggie’s London has been a very special project for us as a practice, not only because of the personal connection with Maggie herself, but also because it has given us the chance to contribute something tangible to our local community in Hammersmith. Most of us pass it every day. We’d like to think of it as constant reminder of Maggie’s vision and her belief that buildings can help us to treat each other in a more humane way.

Richard Rogers and Ivan Harbour are directors at Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners. The practice won the 2009 Stirling Prize for its Maggie’s Centre at CharingCrossHospital in London

Maggie’s Centres by year

1996 – Richard Murphy Architects, Edinburgh
2002 – Page\Park, Glasgow
2003 – Frank Gehry, Dundee
2005 – Page\Park, Inverness
2006 – Zaha Hadid Architects, Fife
2008 – Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners, London
2010 – MJP Architects, Cheltenham

The first Maggie’s Centre was in the grounds of Edinburgh’s Western General Hospital, where Maggie Keswick Jencks was diagnosed. Maggie’s mother passed on the brief to Richard Murphy after her daughter’s funeral in 1995: ‘Not too much architecture please.’

Centres are planned by MJP Architects in Cheltenham; Wilkinson Eyre in Oxford; CZWG Architects in Nottingham; Edward Cullinan Architects in Newcastle; Kisho Kurakawa in Swansea; and OMA in Glasgow, the practice’s first entirely new-build UK project.


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