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The concrete cat

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Garbers & James’ faithful interpretation of Kisho Kurokawa’s Maggie’s Centre makes clever use of space. Photography by Paul Riddle

The Maggie’s Centre in Swansea had an uncertain start. The nine cancer care centres built to date, each designed by a signature architect and personal friend of Maggie Keswick and Charles Jencks, provide a place to cope with the devastating news of cancer. The centres offer support services on hospital sites to patients – a place to do yoga, receive counselling and meet other people undergoing treatment.

Kisho Kurokawa was invited to design a Maggie’s for Swansea in 2007. Garbers & James Architects, a practice founded in 2005 by ex-Liebskind duo Thore Garbers and Wendy James (Garbers is also a friend of Jencks), was chosen to act as executive architect.

They met with Kurokawa just once, to discuss his vision for Maggie’s. A sketch from that meeting drawn over a site plan shows Kurokawa’s concept design – a large, round central space with two tapering, curling wings, like a vortex, described as a ‘cosmic swirl’. The covering note read: ‘A life is a small universe. A universe is a great life. We can always communicate with a universe of a great life.’

Shortly after this initial meeting, Kurokawa died, in October 2007. Garbers remembers a phone call from Maggie’s – ‘Do we have a centre? Do we have a design?’ They had one sketch, and its concept, and the text from an email which read:

The new Maggie’s Centre will come out of the earth and swing around with two arms like a rotating galaxy. One side will welcome the visitor and lead to the other side, which embraces nature, the trees, rocks and water. A place set apart, as Maggie said of a garden. The connection to the cosmos and contacts between East and West – two motives that she and I shared – are in the design. I hope she would have liked it.

The rest would be guesswork, with the devil in the detail, but the answer from Garbers & James was ‘yes’.

Having both worked as project architects under Daniel Libeskind – Garbers on the Serpentine Pavilion and the Crystal extension at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, and James on Manchester’s Imperial War Museum – Garbers says the process of taking a master’s concept sketch into built form was not foreign to them.

But there was a lot to fill in: the roof, windows, facade, volumes of the spaces, materials… everything but the concept and basic plan (which, going by the sketch, was also altered). To this end, Garbers and James went on a tour of Kurokawa’s work in Japan, accompanied by Kurokawa’s son, to help them intuit the appropriate and intended volumes of the spaces, as well as the materials and roof form.

Arriving at the Maggie’s Centre in Swansea, I enter into a kitchen in full use, with the architects cooking lunch for the guests. ‘We decided to try out the kitchen,’ Garbers says, as James lays the bespoke table, with its curving pedestal inspired by the cosmic swirl of the building.

This is a very good Maggie’s Centre. What looks like a graphic on plan actually works well with the house-like brief of the Maggie’s typology. The central space with its giant oculus and view of the garden is comfortable and cosy despite its scale, perhaps because of the wash of light from the clerestories and the womb-like shapes formed by the walls and curved stair. The two wings, as they curl away, prevent you from seeing into these spaces. This makes this small building seem larger, suggesting both permeability and privacy.

Concealed pocket doors allow these areas to be cut off from the main space and turned into studios. Benches line these two sitting rooms, and as the spaces taper, they permit a range of activities and intimacies. At the room’s narrowest point, two people can sit knee-to-knee and have a private conversation; at its widest point, there is enough room for a yoga class or painting tutorials. What would have been an awkward pointy end to the room is concealed by a rotating bookcase, with ample storage for things like yoga mats and chairs. Counselling rooms, a reading space and offices are tucked on the upper floor with views out to the sea.

‘You can do too many clever things in a small building,’ Garbers tells me, and it’s true that they have resisted admirably. The palette of materials is simple and appropriately domestic – maple and ash. There are many thoughtful touches throughout the building. All ‘difficult’ spaces created by the curved form have been adapted into useful storage areas. Daylight and views are generous throughout – including in the lift and loos. The kitchen cupboards have a cut-out on the doors, so that people unfamiliar with the kitchen (as most people using it will be) do not have to open every cupboard to find mugs, teabags or dishes.

The concrete facade has a pleasing toughness, buffering against the aesthetic mess of the hospital grounds (‘curled up like a cat’, as Garbers describes it, and it does look so). Garbers says this is the first Maggie’s Centre with a concrete facade, as no one had been able to make it economical before. To lighten the facade, titanium plates were inset in the concrete panels, which catch the light, allowing the building to sparkle.

To minimise the number of precast panels yet prevent the titanium pattern from repeating, Garbers & James used as few forms as possible, despite the curving structure. They installed some panels the right way up, others upside-down, to have an apparently random facade. The top of the facade curves out to salute the zinc roof’s eaves. The curving zinc roof structure has a central steel spine, like a fish’s backbone, with timber ribs.

There is no telling where Kurokawa ends and Garbers &James begins, but for Maggie’s this shouldn’t matter. This is a welcome addition to the set, which with their home-like typology, have begun to resemble a new series of case study houses.

AJ Buildings Library

See full project data, photographs, plans, sections and details for Maggie’s Centre, Swansea by Kisho Kurokawa, Garbers & James Architects

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