Centres for caring

The Victoria & Albert Museum and the Royal Institute of British Architects Architecture Gallery will host an exhibition next month dedicated to the design behind Maggie’s Cancer Caring Centres. Design Week caught up with Maggie’s chief executive Laura Lee and exhibition co-curator Matthew Storey to talk about the design behind the centres.

Maggie's Cheltenham

Source: Photographer: Peter Durant

Maggie’s Cheltenham – Designed by Sir Richard MacCormac CBE

Design Week: What makes Maggie’s different from other cancer support centres?

Laura Lee: The most obvious difference is our centres themselves: architect designed buildings on the grounds of NHS cancer hospitals that offer somewhere that is both a quiet place and an inspiration for people with cancer and their families. But more than that are the details that help us offer our programme of support.

There is no reception desk at Maggie’s, no signs on the walls: it’s a domestic environment staffed by professionals. I’ve heard it described as like ‘walking into the house of a well-informed friend.’

Maggie's Dundee

Source: Photographer: Keith Hunter

Maggie’s Dundee – Designed by Frank Gehry of Gehry and Partners.

DW: How can design affect and influence the kind of experience cancer suffers have from cancer support and healthcare?

Matthew Storey: Good architectural design should of course support and enable the activities that happen within them. The Maggie’s centres all do this; they have kitchens, places to access information, places for groups to meet and office spaces for administration. The buildings are designed to feel non-institutional. A good example is the toilets, which the architectural brief specifies should be ’private enough to have a cry’. The well thought out design can give people the spaces to behave in the way they need to.

I think in the case of Maggie’s the quality of the design, and the beauty of the buildings, can make people feel valued. People visit these buildings when they are facing terrible difficulties and uncertainty, when they may even feel a sense of personal failure because of their illness. I’ve heard about a visitor to a centre who looked at it and said, ’All this is for us?’ with tears in her eyes. Having an inspiring building that is open for you to walk into, without an appointment, really can counteract those feelings.

Maggie's Fife

Source: Photographer: Christopher Simon Sykes

Maggie’s Fife – Designed by Zaha Hadid of Zaha Hadid Architects

How are the briefs for the centre developed?

Laura Lee: We use the same architectural brief for all our centres – the one that Maggie devised in response her experience as a cancer patient. It recognises the conflicting needs and emotions of someone with cancer and outlines the idea for a space in which these needs – emotional, practical and informational – can all be met in a way that suits each person’s needs.

 Maggie's Highlands

Source: Photographer: Christopher Simon Sykes

Maggie’s Highlands – Designed by Page and Park

DW: Which are you favourite centres and why?

Matthew Storey: I think I’d have to give particular mention to Frank Gehry’s design for the Dundee centre. It manages to be memorable and iconic, while at the same time welcoming and homely. It’s also got one of the best stories attached to it. Gehry knew Maggie Keswick Jencks. His initial designs for the centre were very bold and dramatic. Then he had a dream in which Maggie came to him and told him to ’calm it down’. The next morning he put aside all his previous designs and worked on the current one. It’s so much more appropriate to the Maggie’s ethos and brief. It’s an unforgettable design, but utterly appropriate to the needs of its visitors.

I’d also like to mention the Rogers, Stirk Harbour & Partner’s Hammersmith Centre. It is set on a busy road, but thanks to the exterior wall which wraps around the building the interior feels very separate. Despite this the building is filled with natural light, thanks to the ’floating roof’. When you are inside you are never far from a view of a garden, or a courtyard filled with plants.

Maggie's London

Source: Photographer: Richard Anderson

Maggie’s London – Designed by Lord Rogers of Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners

Maggie’s Cancer Caring Centres runs from 26 February – 8 May at the V&A Museum, Cromwell Rd, London, SW7.

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