Maggies Centre, Kirkcaldy by Zaha Hadid
A Maggie’s cancer care centre in the grounds of a Kirkcaldy hospital is Zaha Hadid’s first UK building. Ellis Woodman finds it takes excellent advantage of a quirky site to create architecture of a very high order.
The rain-swept car park of Victoria Hospital at Kirkcaldy in Fife is a scene that could serve as a dictionary definition of the Scots word “dreich”. Certainly, one might question its adequacy as a setting for the long-awaited domestic debut of arguably the greatest British architect of the age. And yet here, beneath the trees that close the south end of this expanse of pot holed asphalt, lies a diminutive structure formed with all the calculated flamboyance of a piece of origami. Its authorship is immediately clear — this can only be a product of the luxuriant imagination of Zaha Hadid.
The £1 million building is the latest Maggie’s drop-in centre for people affected by cancer. Maggies is the charity founded by Charles Jencks and his late wife, Maggie Keswick, and the centres support not just people who are ill but also their friends, families and carers. They provide counselling, a comprehensive library of cancer-related literature and, perhaps most crucially, an environment in which to meet other people who are dealing with similar experiences.
Although each of the Maggie’s Centres sits within a hospital campus, the buildings are envisaged as places apart from the world of treatment. A recognition of the role that architecture can play in communicating that distinction has always been central to the charity’s vision. Maggie’s has duly emerged as one of the country’s most adventurous patrons, having realised projects by Richard Murphy, Page & Park and Frank Gehry with schemes by CZWG, Richard Rogers, MJP and Kisho Kurokawa awaiting funding. Laudably, all the architects working for Maggie’s contribute their services for free.
Ideally — as with Gehry’s Dundee building — a sense of the centre’s autonomy is further enforced by its placement on the periphery of its host hospital. Maggie’s Fife doesn’t have that luxury. It stands to one side of the entrance to the grotty 12-storey tower that is the focus of the Victoria campus with little in the way of mediation between it and the car park. However, the situation on the building’s far side is so remarkable as to more than justify the choice of site. The ground falls steeply away to form a pronounced pit — one of two such features in the hospital grounds that testify to the site’s history of opencast coal mining. Overgrown and populated by mature trees it reads like a puncture in the veneer of utilitarian hard landscaping that characterises the rest of the campus.
Hadid has placed her building on the very cusp of the pit where it effectively serves as a threshold between the hospital and this little pocket of wilderness. The building’s form has a strong directionality — in essence, it is a continuous plate that runs along the edge of the hollow, performing a loop the loop en route. As a floor surface, the plate is in concrete. Where it becomes wall and roof it reverts to a steel framed structure. Originally it was intended that these faces would be clad externally in corten steel. However, when the tenders came back it proved a prohibitively expensive choice. Instead, a black liquid polyurethane coating has been employed — a standard roofing product which has been tweaked through the introduction of a silicone carbide grit in the last of the four specified coats. This addition makes the material sparkle in the light, articulating the building’s faceted geometry. In good weather I don’t doubt it looks every bit as jewel-like as in the photographs. In the overcast conditions that I experienced — hardly uncharacteristic of these parts — the effect was less enticing. The building looked rather as if it had been folded up from the asphalt of the car park. That said, the view down from the wards of the adjacent tower is a crucial one and is much enhanced by the fact that the choice of this liquid application has enabled a completely seamless transition between wall and roof planes.
The loop the loop gesture sets up two approaches to the building, one from the east and one from the west, which ultimately deliver visitors to the same lobby space. The relative status of these routes does not feel altogether resolved. Because of its relationship to the hospital’s front door, the westerly approach will undoubtedly be the more trafficked. However, in keeping with the idea of the centre as an autonomous unit, Hadid expresses the opposing route as the principal way in. The door nearest the hospital is in fact very downplayed indeed. To find it, you have to track down a narrow passage between the fully glazed north elevation and a freestanding wall which has been sited to offer some measure of screening from the carpark. Rising in height from ground to roof level, this plane ultimately returns into the building to establish a dead end and it is here, set flush within the glass frontage, that you discover the door. For the uninitiated, I fear it makes for an uncomfortably confusing first encounter.
Far better, then, to access the building by trekking round to its east side. Doing so, you discover that the shallow concrete plinth on which the building sits has been extended like an arm around the edge of the hollow. Along its 20m length, the top surface remains level, establishing a datum against which the fall of the adjacent carpark is registered. As it extends away from the building the plinth begins to morph until eventually it consists of no more than two waist high walls delimiting the sides of the approach path.
It is a supremely well handled device answering desires that are ostensibly in opposition — on the one hand the goal of inflating the scale of a small building by connecting it to its surrounding landscape, on the other the aim that the building might be understood as a retreat from its context.
For all Hadid’s astounding formal invention, she still manages to establish a fundamentally domestic space
The short journey down this path has been meticulously composed — clearly the product of extensive testing with models. Tracking round the edge of the pit, the route climbs, cranks, slips beneath a prow-like roof overhang, widens into a terrace that runs along the fully glazed south elevation and finally juts free of the hill in a dramatic cantilever. Along the way your awareness of the hospital quite evaporates and you find yourself placed squarely within the poetic world of the overgrown hollow.
In contrast to the dark and sharp-edged carapace that is the building’s exterior, the interior is curvaceous, filled with light and blessed with a magnificent view of the tops of the trees that grow below it. It also reveals that, given a rich social programme to work with, Hadid is a far more responsive architect than the brilliant formalist that she is often dismissed as.
There is no designated reception area but rather it is assumed that the modest scale and open plan will enable staff members to spot newcomers as they arrive. Indeed, although it is compartmentalised, the interior reads very much as one volume. Wherever you are, you remain conscious of the all-encompassing span of the roof. Pitching up from west to east, it enables Hadid to establish spaces of dramatically varying levels of intimacy within the same volume. A squadron of triangular light sources — some skylights, others fluorescent fittings — sweeps across the whole surface and down the canted walls. It is a unifying device that speaks of the influence that Russian Constructivism continues to exert on Hadid’s vocabulary. In particular, it brings to mind the field of apertures that punctuate the walls of the Melnikov house in Moscow.
The smaller spaces — an office and counselling rooms — are ranged along the north elevation, divided by walls that billow expressively in plan. Superscaled pivoting doors can close these areas off as necessary but ordinarily they will be left open, enabling views from one side of the building to the other.
The communal area is divided into two distinct territories by a curved wall in the centre of the plan. The concave side that it presents to anyone entering the centre supports a kitchen. A large freestanding table is to be sited within its embrace, establishing a focus for the life of the building. The 60 to 70 visitors the centre expects to receive each day will be able to get tea and coffee here, but the area will also host a regular programme of nutrition classes.
A slight drop in floor level defines the space on the far side of the curved wall as a distinct territory. You can reach it either by a set of steps which draws you down past the glazed south elevation, or by a ramp which tracks around the convex face of the curved wall — a surface that has been used to support the centre’s library. It is designated as a flexible space, left open to accommodate exercise classes and opening directly onto the terrace.
Standing here, watching the myriad light sources model this effortlessly fluid concoction, one has no doubt that this is architecture of a very high order indeed. But perhaps Hadid’s greatest success is that for all her astounding formal invention, she still manages to establish a space of a fundamentally domestic character. Indeed, one can readily imagine a family taking up residence here without feeling the need to change a thing.
That said, from the outside, the building is unquestionably a tougher proposition than the previous Maggie’s Centres. Even Gehry seemingly felt the need to make an explicitly “friendly” building and arguably ended up with something on the wrong side of cute as a consequence. For many, entering Maggie’s Fife for the first time will demand a real level of courage, but then, instilling courage in its users is the building’s very purpose.