The Maggie’s Centres, some more signature in style than others, are beautifully designed havens of peace and respite. Founded as a charitable venture 15 years ago by Charles Jencks, the guru of Post-Modernism in memory of his late wife Maggie Keswick Jencks, who died of cancer, 15 Centres, all located on hospital grounds throughout the UK, now exist. Nottingham (architect Piers Gough of CZWG) and Swansea (Kisho Kurokawa) open soon, and later Aberdeen in Scotland (Snøhetta), and then Hong Kong (Frank Gehry); three more are in the pipeline for London. Anyone affected by cancer can go to one of them for comfort, conversation when undergoing treatment or during bereavement, for the psychological and educational benefits of counseling and workshops. Complementing the clinical atmosphere of cancer centres run by the state, the Centres are full of light and open spaces with a big kitchen and communal table at their heart, a relaxing, homely and warm atmosphere. Noone forces the emotional stricken if they prefer to just sit with a counsellor in one of three private living rooms. This year the British Medical Association called on healthcare organizations to prioritise design and the Centres’ architecture has enabled a widely praised humanitarian cause.
The new Maggie’s Centre by OMA in Glasgow is a gem. The practice’s first building in the UK, they chose the site. The building is a pavilion in high on a grassy knoll behind Gartnavel Hospital, a utilitarian 1970s structure, on landscaped grounds designed by Jencks’s daughter, Lily, in front of a Gothic former mental hospital. A single storey structure with a 350mm thick concrete slab roof, its overhangs of up to 8 metres create small terraced areas on the hill side. The most open plan of the series, it is a concentric ring of interconnected rooms around a small internal landscaped courtyard Jencks also designed with plantings. The plan shows a sequence of L-shaped spaces. They are linked, yet clearly distinguishable spaces. Sliding doors on the hill side of the building create spaces used for counseling in harmony with the more open zones for communal use. The Centre has the aura of a comforting villa or house in which one can feel relaxed. On the inner side facing the hill, a sequence of floor-to-ceiling, sliding glass doors lend transparency; while buffered concrete floors and walls give a sense of tactility.
Around the ring of spaces, the ceiling levels respond to the hilly topography, and rooms step down with gentle ramps. The kitchen area has a translucent resin storage wall and offers views out through floor-to-ceiling glass. After a small dining space, this degree of permeability reappears in a light-filled work area from where the landscaped surroundings of wooded glades and across the city can be seen. These create “a buffer surrounding the Centre, providing a place apart, so that as people enter they feel a different pace and emotional connection with their surroundings”, explained Lily Jencks. The inner garden embeds the building into the ground, cushioning it in a hill - a metaphor for a supportive environment.
Three counseling rooms on the hill side are styled as living rooms, beautifully decorated, and including a tiny, womb-like, elm wood-lined space. Rhythmic lines of timber accentuate the ceiling. Ellen van Loon, OMA Partner, explains that this technique was created by putting in the beech timber planks as form work, pouring concrete on top, and then sealing it with a lacquer, giving it an element of glimmer in the light.
“The sequence of spaces is an interplay of openness, retreat and support”, she adds, and the Centre’s sustainability stems from a sense of respect and enjoyment people feel. Without cellularity, corridors or hallways, the atmospheric, informal space flows, while each part is sufficiently distinguished to feel like a room. Some critics see the building as a cut up Case Study house, but it is more useful to look at the Centre in the context of OMA’s ramped buildings, its evolving language and play on notions of formal and informal in response to the brief set by Jencks, Rem Koolhaas’s old friend and former tutor at the Architectural Association in London.
With its mix of open and more enclosable space, the Centre is humble and responsive to its natural context, all the more interesting in a city full of dark stoned buildings. Glaswegians dislike the monumental in their architecture. Without quite dematerialising into the landscape, the building has presence, and is open to the inside and the outside, a seeming enactment of a moment of connection between architecture and landscape, a hidden symbol of its cause. Lucy Bullivant