Deplored office buildings and aggressively whimsical Disney hotels aside, the late American architect Michael Graves was best known during his wheelchair-bound (but no less prolific) later years for championing the restorative powers of good design in healthcare settings.
“I believe well-designed places and objects can actually improve healing, while poor design can inhibit it,” Princeton, New Jersey-based Graves told the Washington Post in July 2014. Noting that “beauty can reduce stress and make us feel better,” Graves, who passed away this past March at the age of 80, famously asked: “Who wants to recover in a place where everything is beige?”
And then there’s Maggie’s Centres.
A network of over 15 cancer care centers spread out across the United Kingdom, Maggie's Centres provide "practical, emotional and social" support to cancer patients and their families in joyously non-clinical environments that could easily be described as architecturally stunning: bold, beautiful, uplifting, challenging, welcoming, the antithesis of drab and oppressive. Instead of evoking boredom and dread, each Maggie’s Centre — described as “part-hospital, part-church, part-museum and part-home” — instills patients and their loved ones with a sense of optimism and positivity.
While Graves had no formal relationship with Maggie’s Centres, his vision of healing through good design matched that of Maggie herself, the late Maggie Keswick Jencks. During her two-year battle with breast cancer, a battle that she ultimately lost in 1995, Jencks remained firm in the belief that those fighting chronic illness should never “lose the joy of living in the fear of dying.”
Designed by acclaimed Scottish architect Richard Murphy, the first Maggie’s Centre opened in 1996 in Edinburgh. From there, additional centers opened their high-design doors across Scotland and beyond in quick succession. Twenty years later, the roster of famed architects — a sizable handful of Pritzker laureates, included — who have designed buildings for Maggie’s Centres is impressive: Frank Gehry (Dundee, 2003), Zaha Hadid (Fife, 2006), Richard Rogers (London, 2008), Kisho Kurokawa (Swansea, 2011), OMA (Glasgow, 2011) and Norwegian design powerhouse Snøhetta (Aberdeen, 2013).
Completed in 2003, Maggie's Centre in Dundee, Scotland, was Frank Gehry's first building in the U.K. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Designed by Richard Rogers, Maggie's London won the prestigious RIBA Stirling Prize in 2009. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Among just one of a half-dozen-or-so planned Maggie’s Centres is Maggie’s Yorkshire, which will be built adjacent to the new, oncology-dedicated Bexley Wing at St. James University Hospital in Leeds. (Operating as a charitable organization, all Maggie’s Centres are erected near or adjacent to existing, National Health Service-operated hospitals with cancer treatment facilities).
Heatherwick Studio, the London-based design firm headed by multi-disciplinarian extraordinaire, Thomas Heatherwick, recently unveiled preliminary design renderings for Maggie’s Yorkshire, a nature-infused mini-campus that, at first glance, looks like an assemblage of Paul Bunyan-sized potted plants.
In addition to his Olympic cauldrons and expo pavilions, Heatherwick is no stranger to greenery-heavy high-profile commissions: He’s the designer behind London’s highly contentious “floating paradise garden” otherwise known as Garden Bridge; Google’s sprawling and refreshingly outdoorsy Mountain View campus co-designed with Bjarke Ingels and to be built by an army of robots; and billionaire Barry Diller’s also controversial – and freshly sued – Pier55, a 2.4-acre privately controlled offshore urban oasis planned for the Hudson River in Manhattan.
Heatherwick’s design for Maggie’s Yorkshire (one of the largest centers to date) is less likely to polarize than these other in-the-works projects. But true to the architectural tradition of Maggie’s Centres, it remains adventurous, imaginative, attention-grabbing and a wee bit bonkers. But above all, Heatherwick’s design is a place to heal with plants taking a front-and-center role.
Like with other Maggie's Centres, Heatherwick Studio wasn't exactly given full carte blanche with the project. Rather, the firm worked off of a design brief provided by Maggie's Centres that allowed for an ample amount of freedom.
As described by Maggie’s Centres, the £5 million ($7.8 million) building itself aims to capture “the therapeutic effect of plants” and will take the form of “a collection of stepped planter elements.” Public and private spaces will be “playfully created between and within the planters.”
I’m instantly reminded of Vietnamese architect Vo Trong Nghia’s House of Trees, a private residence in Ho Chi Minh City in which a cluster of tree-topped concrete volumes pull double duty as both functional living spaces and oversized planter boxes.
Explains Heatherwick Studio:
Surrounded by the huge and complex medical machine for healing we wanted to capture the positive and therapeutic experience of plants and see if it could be possible to make a whole building out of a garden.
We wondered if we could make a building from containers, each holding a piece of garden. The design formed itself as a collection of garden pots defining a building by enclosing a series of spaces between them.
The individual pots and planting are of differing proportions bringing the planting into and over the building itself. The most private spaces are created within the containers themselves. Between them are only the minimum flat sheets of glass necessary to weather protect and enclose the internal space.
Maggie’s at the Christie, a drop-in support center due to open next year in Manchester at one of the largest cancer treatment centers in all of Europe, takes a similar horticulture-heavy approach. British starchitect, cancer survivor and native Mancunian Lord Norman Foster headed up that design.
For more on the role that architecture and design plays into the mission of Maggie’s Centres, do check out this great 2012 article from The Guardian in which Laura Lee, chief executive of the organization, makes a truly wonderful point: “We have to be braver about letting architects look at social problems. At the same time, what is wrong with beauty? People are living very challenging and difficult lives, what's wrong with asking architects to inject a bit of beauty into our buildings and into our lives?"
Five individual Maggie’s Centres (Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall has served as the charity’s president since 2008, by the way) were also the subject of a 2014 exhibition, “Maggie’s Centres: A Blueprint for Cancer Care,” presented by the New York School of Interior Design.
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