Wood for well-being

Inside out – Maggies Yorkshire (in Leeds) – Photo Oliver Lowenstein

Alongside sensitive design, a new wave of buildings Maggie’s, the cancer care centre network have commissioned, highlight timber’s warmth and healing qualities.

Known for netting some of architectures biggest names in to design small, intimate buildings in support of cancer patients, Maggie’s, the small, yet ambitious healthcare related network has also quietly and consistently turned into one of the country’s more interesting timber architecture advocates. The Maggie’s projects are not about the largest or tallest timber buildings or other measurable quantities. Rather the centres deal in intangibles, the non-calculable emotional element in wood that helps hold people experiencing the trauma and pain of dealing with a cancer diagnosis and for some, facing the reality of death.

Maggie’s was founded in 1995 by the artist Maggie Keswick Jencks and her architectural theorist husband Charles Jencks, after Keswick Jones was diagnosed with cancer, and given three months to live. They were told the news in the corridor of her Edinburgh Hospital, which unsurprisingly left the super well-connected couple in a state of shock. But it also galvanised the Jencks’s to set up a first in what became a series of centres, with the aim of bringing the best in design and architecture to create welcoming buildings, imbued with atmospheres which held patients learning to cope with living with cancer. in that time the couple developed the blueprint for the first Maggie’s in the hospital grounds – the first in Scotland. Maggie died in July 1995 and the first centre opened in in Nov 1996.  After Maggie died Laura Lee worked with Maggie’s family to turn her vision into a reality. Through subsequent years Charles Jencks helped its development, describing the emerging network within his phrase – the ‘architecture of hope.’

The network grew, initially in Scotland, and in the interim years 24 Centres have opened their doors in Britain, and a further three internationally, all emphasising the open hearth and homely atmosphere, and almost all highlighting wood in some way, using its tacit warmth, and its capacity to hold those in distress. The string of early Scottish centres included bringing in the Jencks’s friend Frank Gehry, to design pro bono the Maggie’s Dundee, a small timber jewel which opened in 2004. The next centre, Maggies Highland’s, (2006) was similarly a timber building adjoining the Inverness Raigmore Hospital, designed by Glasgow practice, Page\Park. Based on a balloon frame, around a spiral like curved on another characteristically tight site which the organisation is often offered by the super-sized NHS Trusts partners.

If Gehry set the timber choice early on, many other architects have followed, using timber, to greater or lesser extent in their designs. The list studios involved reads partially like a rollcall of the international starchitect elite, including Zaha Hadid, Rem Koolhaas, and (next year), Daniel Libeskind, plus UK international stars, Richard Rogers and Norman Foster, and further broadened out by some of the most respected UK practices.

In the last four years, however, two recent Maggie’s have opened, which together have propelled the network into what looks like a new chapter, one which highlights timber centre stage and in more comprehensive ways; dRMM’s Oldham and Thomas Heatherwick Maggie’s Yorkshire.  Each push the timber envelope in their respective projects.

Left – Maggie Keswick Jencks (Photo Maggies)
Right – Charles Jencks and his book The Architecture of Hope

Left – Maggie’s Highlands by Page\Park – Photo Maggie’s
Right – The first Maggies Centres at Edinburgh General Infermary – Photo Maggie’s

Maggies Oldham – Photo Maggie’s

Tulipwood in detail – Photo Jon Cardwell, AHEC

“There’s no question we learnt so much from Alex de Rijke” says Laura Lee, these days Maggie’s CEO. Long a timber proselytiser, dRMM’s de Rijke’s Oldham (2017) building design uses a broad palette of wood and other natural materials, for its poetic, delicately raised cube, sitting above a sunken garden. In its centre a single silver birch rises up through the glass void cut into the middle of the building. The principal timber is 27.6m3 of dark Tulipwood, or American Tulip Poplar hardwood. Applied structurally for the first time, the American hardwood is primarily used in the Southern face’s double wall, within which offices and toilets are sandwiched between the two curving walls, helping carry the load. Looking like an organic wavy corrugated metal or façade, de Rijke is a big fan, saying he finds it more beautiful than softwoods. It also brings hardwood strengths into play. de Rijke didn’t stop with the tulipwood, and oak door handles, as one side effect of chemotherapy is peripheral neuropathy, where your fingers get incredibly sensitive to temperatures. The doors and drawers in Maggie’s Oldham only have wooden handles. There are cork wall screen and raw uncut birch line the entrance balcony railings. Together Oldham is Maggie’s first natural materials showcase.

“We’re not in the business of specifying materials”, Lee notes. Rather she emphasises working with emotionally intelligent, mature and compassionate architects. “It is about reciprocity, the giving and receiving of kindness.” It’s from these starting points that architects often gravitate to timber: “They’re the experts, and they get that right.”

Thomas Heatherwick Maggie’s Yorkshire, which opened in late 2019 on a tiny hillside space fronting the city’s main hospital, is another example. A difficult site, Heatherwicks responded by designing a four-storey open plan centre, complete with the studio’s signature use of nature carefully integrated into the landscaping, the interior and a roof garden, blurring outside from in. Inside the building has been organised around the timber, primarily glulam fins emerging out of four pods, providing a calming presence. The aesthetic is of a finely crafted building with the exposed timber – including 27 thin Baubuche columns – complementing various individual crafted features, including two cork surface tables. Lee notes, how, compared to many tables, cork is acoustically quiet and pleasant with cutlery and crockery, a small but telling feature. Together all helping convey the peaceful atmosphere.

Both Oldham and Yorkshire move Maggie’s buildings on in the architectural and timber conversation, towards a more thorough going integration of timber, natural materials, and crafted nature. So far there are no adhesive free – and therefore nontoxic volatile organic compounds or VOC’s – timber projects, but with the young, hip maker oriented Assemble currently working on Maggie’s Maidstone, one can imagine it’s only a matter of time. ol

A version of this piece originally appeared in Zuschnitt, the Austrian timber architecture magazine.

You can find further in-depth pieces in Annular Archive on Maggies Yorkshire and Maggies Oldham

A Design with Care/Annular piece

Maggie’s Yorkshire – Photo BalstonAguis

The pods under construction – Blumer Lehmann and (R) Thomas Heatherwick

Photo Maggie’s