Beacon of Hope

Clerkenwell is home to the oldest hospital, and some of the best architects, in Britain, so it’s only fitting that it now has a Maggie’s centre for cancer care. And its design is a glowing success, says Kate O’Donnell.

Before the internet, there were few ways for patients to finnd out about cancer. What little they could locate consisted generally of brief mentions in consumer books, dense medical texts aimed at clinicians and, worse, scare stories in the press. Complementary therapies did exist but access was patchy and, in that under-informed environment, frightened patients were rarely in a position to navigate competing theories, or dodge the charlatans.

Faced with the shock of her own terminal cancer diagnosis in 1993, the garden designer and writer Maggie Keswick Jencks decided to change all that. She envisioned a warm, welcoming place – importantly, on hospital grounds – where cancer patients could access as much practical, social and emotional support they needed, away from the drips and bone scans. There would be a library with accessible information, a kitchen for endless cups of tea, plenty of private spaces for a quiet weep, and staff, advisers, therapists and volunteers. A sort of home-from-home in hospital.

But this place would look directional rather than institutional because Maggie and her husband, the landscape architect and architecture writer Charles Jencks, knew everyone who was anyone in modern architecture. Maggie persuaded her hospital, Edinburgh’s Western General, to let local star architect Richard Murphy convert a small stable on the grounds, a short walk from the oncology department. The idea was that patients could come straight out of chemo or radio and into the centre.

The result was a triumph (Murphy won a RIBA award for his design) and set an ultra- contemporary standard for what was to come. Maggie’s Edinburgh opened in November 1997; this was sadly after Maggie had died but the ball had started rolling… After his wife’s death, Charles Jencks busied himself planning more centres, each as inspiring as the last.

David Page of Page\Park designed the second Maggie’s, in Glasgow; Frank Gehry the third, in Dundee. Maggie’s Swansea, designed by Kisho Kurokawa with Garbers & James, won a RIBA award. Maggie’s further centre in Glasgow, by Rem Koolhaas, won both a RIBA award and “RIAS Best Building in Scotland 2012”. Norman Foster designed Maggie’s Manchester; Amanda Levete Maggie’s Southampton. Richard Rogers and Ivan Harbour designed Maggie’s West London, which won the 2009 RIBA Stirling Prize. Dan Pearson designed the internal and external landscaping.

Our new centre in Clerkenwell, Maggie’s Barts, which opened at the end of last year, is triumph number 22. For it, the prolific American architect Steven Holl had quite a challenge: St Bart’s hospital was founded in 1123 and the centre is slap bang next to the Grade I* Listed Great Hall. How would he design something that both suited the Maggie’s modern ethos and the supremely historical surroundings?

His answer was a building of horizontal bands of matte white glass, dotted through with squares of polychrome insulated glass (invented specifically for the site). His inspiration was “neume notation”, the medieval method of writing music. The bands of glass represent staffs; each coloured glass square a musical note. According to Holl, architecture, like music, “can be a vessel of transcendence”. In the tight space with which he had to work, the architecture sings like a dream.

By day, the centre has a gentle luminosity, like a diffused version of stained glass. At night, it glows from within like a bedside lantern; cosy and reassuring. The top floor opens out onto a roof garden, complete with flowering plants and a room for yoga or tai chi. Its ground-floor garden is laid out in rectangular squares like a chessboard but the planting itself is contrastingly so and informal.

Exactly as Maggie envisaged from the outset, Maggie’s Barts is a comforting home from home while also an exciting adventure in architecture.