Maggie's Centre, St James's hospital, Leeds review – a safe place for flamboyance


Maggie’s Centres are based on some beautiful ideas. They offer to people hit by cancer – to families and carers as well as patients – emotional, social and practical support that complements their medical treatment. They do so in spaces that are in some way comforting and inspiring, the opposite of the generic medicalised environments, all air-conditioned and fluorescent-lit and plastic-surfaced, of modern hospitals. They offer, in an institutional and standardised wilderness, oases of the bespoke and personal.

This concept presents a special challenge to architects. It exposes which of their devices really do help people to feel better, and which are stunts and twirls to promote their brand and impress their peers. A well-placed window, a calming material, the fall of light, a soothing acoustic are all more important to the aims of Maggie’s than the signature moves of a famous designer.

Which brings us to the 26th and latest Maggie’s Centre, in the grounds of St James’s university hospital, affectionately known as Jimmy’s, in Leeds. It is designed by the celebrated Thomas Heatherwick, who is by training a designer of products and furniture rather than buildings, creator of the Olympic cauldron for the London 2012 opening ceremony, as well as the unrealised proposals for a Garden Bridge over the Thames.

Readers of these pages might have noticed that I am a Heatherwick-sceptic: too many of his works are cute ideas and glib gestures that under-deliver – in terms of scale, detail and their relationship to their surroundings – the physical experience of being there and sometimes basic practicality. Flair, invention, energy and money go into enterprises that end up feeling empty and pointless. What I can say about his building in Leeds, though, is that the Maggie’s commission has brought out the very best in him and his practice.

READ  UnitedHealth warns hospitals about Envision ER contracts

The kitchen space at Maggie’s Leeds



The kitchen space. Photograph: Hufton+Crow

It employs a favourite Heatherwick trope, that of the overwrought flowerpot, as seen not only in the Garden Bridge proposals, but also in Little Island, a small park currently being built over part of the Hudson River in New York, and in his 1,000 Trees development in Shanghai. In those projects trees seem to grow somewhat uncomfortably out of the extravagant concrete elements that support and contain them. In Leeds there are a series of planted levels, some on the ground, some of them terraces and roofs resting on mushroom-shaped structures that rise through the building. The difference is that the plants, hardy native species chosen by the landscape design firm Balston Agius, here look happy, spreading abundantly. They, rather than their containers, are the main story.

The mushrooms then shape the interior. Their stems are fat enough to contain small and enclosed rooms, including counselling rooms, a lift and toilets. Around and between them flow open-plan spaces on four levels, for informal and formal meetings, exercise, and simply sitting there and passing the time. As always, in Maggie’s Centres, the kitchen is an important space, and the kitchen table a place for coming together and chatting. A leisurely staircase winds its way up through the centre.

Between the mushroom stems you see through glass walls on to the planted terraces, and to the landscape beyond. The site is a scrappy one, sloping, a leftover space between the accumulated large cuboids of the hospital, but with glimpses of the distant Yorkshire moors. The design makes the most of it, both with its changes of level and its capture of whatever sunlight and view is available.

The mood is set by the rhythms of the timber fins – gills, if you want to push the fungal metaphor to its limits – repetitive in spacing but varying in shape, which grow out of the stems to prop up the plant-carrying decks above. Between them are panels of natural lime render. Together with other mostly natural materials – cork-topped tables, woollen room-dividing curtains, a resin floor – they create an acoustic and a quality of light pitched between soft and hard. Not mushy, but not cold and clanging, either.

Built-in shelves carry pot-plants and nicely designed mugs and other domestic-scaled objects. The furniture, as in other Maggie’s centres, is eclectic and attractive. The charity’s experience, built up over all its projects, means it now knows well what works. The Leeds centre is also helped by the multi-disciplinary nature of Heatherwick’s practice, which enables it to move from the design of tables to handrails to the whole building.

Exterior shot of Maggie's Leeds, showing the garden and green roof



Heatherwick’s design makes the most of a ‘scrappy, leftover’ space between hospital buildings. Photograph: Hufton+Crow

There are some clunky bits, where the ambitious array of shapes and materials don’t quite come together in harmony. And, like most of its predecessors, it is in fact more declamatory – and presumably more expensive – than it strictly needs to be. You could have the views and the light and the greenery and the nice surfaces without all the Heatherwickian swoops and whooshes. That it wants to make a statement is partly to do with fundraising: one of the functions of a Maggie’s is to be a showcase to attract the donors who will pay for the next one.

But, most important, the project rises to the ambition, stated in the brief, to create “a home that people wouldn’t dare build for themselves”, to make a place where people can feel at home but which is also a refuge from the everyday world. Maggie’s doesn’t want to intimidate its users, many of whom have just received the shock of a first diagnosis, but it does want the place to feel out of the ordinary. The space engenders both fellowship and intimacy. Amanda Procter , the head of the centre, says: “Most people like to be supported in the open space, they want to cry with other people there. It’s OK to be upset.” People find its architecture, she adds, “safe and welcoming … people ask ‘is this really for me?’”

What would be truly great would be if the ideals of the Maggie’s Centres were to spread elsewhere in the health system, and benefited people affected by the many other diseases that are as devastating as cancer. Perhaps the Maggie’s charity could find a way of lending their expertise to other agencies in the NHS, such that humane architecture could become a rule and not an exception, even if such a spread of wisdom involved less singular architecture than you see at the Leeds Maggie’s , it being hard to keep up so much originality at a large scale. Meanwhile, though, we should appreciate places like this for the achievements that they are.



READ SOURCE

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here