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Maggie’s Centres – Architecture of Hope

March 3, 2016

Maggie's cancer centres , UK . Architecture with a heart

Maggie’s Centres - a network of beautiful spaces in the grounds of British cancer hospitals offering support and refuge to patients and their families - have over twenty years gathered worldwide acclaim for their impressive line-up of beautiful buildings by remarkable architects.

By Rachel Ang

Maggie Jencks Keswick


Maggie’s Centres is an inspirational story of hope borne from the scourge of cancer. In 1995, founder and inspiration behind Maggie’s Centres, Maggie Keswick Jencks, described her seven-year experience of cancer diagnosis, treatment, remission and recurrence, in harrowing terms:

“A diagnosis of cancer hits you like a punch in the stomach… No road. No compass. No map. No training… At one time, I could not sit, or lie, or stand, listen or speak coherently because my shattered mind vibrated so violently through my body I felt I might disintegrate.”

During this time, she and her husband, architect and writer Charles Jencks, worked closely with her medical team, pioneering a new approach to cancer treatment. In order to not be defeated by cancer, they believed that patients must be empowered to be an informed participants in their medical treatment, stress-reducing strategies, psychological support, and the opportunity to meet others in similar circumstances in a relaxed domestic atmosphere.


Maggies - Aberdeen


Maggie was determined that people should not “lose the joy of living in the fear of dying”; and a core element of her approach was that environment was crucial – patients need welcoming, reassuring, permanent spaces which offer security comfort and fellowship, with thoughtful lighting and views out to sky, nature and birds.
Creating these spaces was and remains at the heart of Maggie’s Centres.

Maggie passed away in June 1995, but survived through her vision, which blossomed into a network of Centres across the UK, each supporting and empowering hundreds of thousands of cancer patients.

From the outset, they have worked with innovative architects, who often offer their time for little or nothing. Each Centre is unique, and each embodies a combination of consistent elements: a talented architect, landscaped spaces, intimate domestic scale, open plan spaces which combine program, and the removal of boundaries between staff and visitors.

For Maggie’s Centres, creating quality spaces is at the heart of their approach. These spaces shape their programs and interactions, they provide beauty, comfort and a permanent reassuring refuge for those at the most difficult period of their lives, at a time when so much is uncertain. Architecture provides so much more than aesthetics. It transforms the ordinary, it provides and symbolises hope, and here, it changes people’s lives.


Maggies Edinburgh


Edinburgh, Richard Murphy, 1996.

Maggie’s Edinburgh, at the Western General Hospital, was the first of its kind, and begun during the last year of Maggie’s life. Maggie and Charles interviewed five architects for the Edinburgh Centre, but after some consideration rejected the large professional offices in favour of young Scottish architect, Richard Murphy.

Murphy’s design converted the old stable block into a welcoming and fun exemplar of postmodern complexity and contradiction, skilfully weaving together traditional Scottish stone masonry with the quirky cool of 90s British architecture – glass bricks, exposed steel skeleton, bright colour palette.

The Centre was designed without any corridors, to avoid an institutional feel. Murphy describes his concept as creating  spaces within spaces: “Architecturally the idea was to slip a building within a building, lots of little niches and intimate spaces, all on the small side.”

The gardens were designed for year-round colour by Emma Keswick, and feature a kinetic sculpture by American artist George Rickey.

This became the precedent for several more buildings, the first one of five major styles that characterize the Centres. After completion, the Edinburgh Maggie’s Centre won the 1997 RIBA Award, the 1996 EAA Conservation Award, as well as the 1997 RIBA / Department of Health National Award.

Maggies Dundee


Dundee, Frank Gehry, 2003.

A striking form, the Dundee Centre adjacent to Ninewells Hospital combines the local vernacular of Scottish ‘butt n’ ben’ dwellings with a distinct folded silver roof. It was the first completely new-build Maggie’s Centre. Gehry had been a close friend of Maggie Keswick Jencks and waived his architect’s fee; the project was realized through charitable donations and fundraising efforts of the local community.


The Centre is sited on a hill overlooking the Tay estuary and landscape beyond. The project marries two key formal elements: the tower, inspired by lighthouses, and the asymmetrical folded roof, based on woman’s shawl in a Vermeer portrait he had viewed with Maggie. The roof construction, a latticework of Finnish pine and laminated plywood, is finished in stainless-steel shingles, with a soft matte finish, reflecting clouds drifting above. While the unique roof is space-agey, consisting of numerous complex curves, the interior is warm and traditional, with exposed timber structure the dominant element. An elevated timber deck projects out from the the central seating area, allowing visitors to enjoy the picturesque gardens and landscape beyond.

The heart of the garden designed by Arabella Lennox-Boyd is a labyrinth based on one at Chartres Cathedral in France; it serves as a metaphor for life’s journey – you must find your own way through it. Also in the Centre grounds is a sculpture by acclaimed artist Antony Gormley, Another Time X.

Maggies West London


West London, Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners, 2008

This terracotta-hued refuge is sited adjacent to Charing Cross Hospital in Hammersmith. Architect Richard Rogers conceived of the centre as a heart nestled in the protection of four walls.

The Centre consists of four elements: a protective perimetral wall; a central kitchen; annexes off the main space, forming meeting, sitting and consulting rooms; and a roof which ‘floats’ over the outer walls to let light in through clerestory windows. Small courtyards are formed between the building and the wall for quiet spaces. Operable walls allow the spaces to be used for anything from cosy private chats to active fitness classes, and allow visitors and activities to flow between spaces.

The journey through the spaces was designed to remove the inhabitant from the overbearing influence of the hospital and main road, in what can be a dense, uninviting territory.  The Centre is surrounded by and connected to the main hospital by a series of peaceful courtyard and garden spaces by Dan Pearson, designed to gently coax patients towards the Centre.

Maggies Glasgow


Glasgow, OMA, 2011.

The Glasgow Centre, in Gartnaval, is an angular loop of spaces surrounding a courtyard garden.

Rem Koolhaas describes their design motivations thus: ” I don’t think it should be a building that challenges people to live better; rather it should have a direct effect on the people who use it. The space we have is great because it is linked to the existing hospital, but far enough away from it for us to create another world. It has both privacy and a central position; both sheltered and slightly exposed. The Centre will have a holistic feel and hopefully will provide respite and comfort for people.”


Sliding doors allow spaces to flow easily into each other. The spaces, which include kitchen, dining room, small counselling rooms, library, and office, are designed to feel safe and domestic. Expansive floor to ceiling windows allow light and shadows to permeate all spaces, and look into a lush garden space designed by Charles and Maggie’s daughter, Lily Jencks. Lily describes the garden as providing courage to the inhabitants:

“Everything has been designed to show an enthusiasm for life. And you need that when you’re fighting cancer – you need something to give you a bit of life and power.”

Swansea, Kisho Kurokawa, 2011.

Kisho Kurakawa was a giant of Japanese modernist architecture and personal friend of Maggie Keswick Jencks. He conceived and designed the Swansea Centre as a cosmic whirlpool, both open and circular with spaces for privacy and reflection. Unfortunately, Kurakawa passed away before his design could be built, and the Centre was constructed posthumously with collaboration from architects Garbers & James.

Maggies Swansea


The building is reminiscent as a kind of observatory for the soul. Kurakawa described the form in truly magical terms: ““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 she said of a garden.”

The Centre is both inspiring and comforting. The ‘eye’ of the galaxy is a heath, for gathering and drinking tea. Large curved windows look onto onto the gardens, and an oculus above lets the light in through all seasons.

Gardens designed by Kim Wilkie wrap around the building, attract wildlife, and overlook Swansea Bay.


Manchester, Norman Foster, in progress.

The proposed Maggie’s Centre at The Christie has been designed by Lord Norman Foster, who was born and grew up in Manchester. It will be the first in the North West of England, and projected to be one of the busiest, with an expected 60,000 visitors a year once established.

Set in a peaceful garden, the proposed design is inspired by, and replete with Nature. The building consists of a timber structure focused around a wide, central spine with the roof rising in the centre to create a mezzanine illuminated with natural light. Exposed lightweight beams and timber lattice support the roof and define different spaces. An integrated glass house will create a space for people to gather and enjoy the therapeutic qualities of nature.

photo : dezeen


The surrounding gardens have been designed by landscape designer Dan Pearson, combining a rich mix of spaces. The glasshouse and vegetable garden will provide a place for both activity and reflection.  Nature will permeate the Centre through micro gardens and internal courtyards, relating to the different spaces within the building.

To find out more about Maggies


Maggie’s Centres are currently fundraising to build this new Centre.
To learn more or to donate:

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