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Friday01 August 2014

Rogers Stirk Harbour’s Maggie’s Centre at Charing Cross Hospital is a place like home

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A sense of abstract domesticity pervades the first Maggie’s Centre to be built in England — at challenging site at Charing Cross Hospital

Architects as a profession probably know more than any other about Maggie’s cancer care centres, and the reason for that is clear. From the outset, architecture has been seen as a fundamental part of the caring process, and a number of high-profile architects have been commissioned to design the buildings. With projects from Richard Murphy, David Page, Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid, these modestly scaled centres have found the architectural spotlight.

When Maggie Keswick was diagnosed with cancer and discovered little in the way of social support, she conceived the idea of daycare centres to which patients, their friends and family could turn, not for the “right” way to deal with the illness but to discover the way appropriate for themselves. A landscape gardener herself, and the wife of architectural critic Charles Jencks, she sensed that the physical reality of a building should be called into existence by emotional needs as opposed, say, to technical prescriptions.

Indeed, the architect of this building, Rogers Stirk Harbour, talks of the initial brief as being devoid of functional requirements, an “emotional brief” that was, over time and through meetings with client and patients, refined into a building project. The word that recurs is house: the centre should feel domestic, private, house-like.

And one can see in previous Maggie’s Centres how this has been achieved, greatly aided by sites where one can imagine wanting to live. But in this, Maggie’s Centres’ first venture outside Scotland, the project has arrived on a dot of land wedged between the consultants’ car park at west London’s Charing Cross Hospital and the Fulham Palace Road. It’s the last place in the city you’d think of building a house.

Rogers Stirk Harbour, in conjunction with Dan Pearson as landscaper, has blended a number of strategies to engineer a solution to this seemingly intractable problem. The building picks up the rational layout of the hospital beside it, but using a 3.6m by 3.6m module in a layout of five by six units, plays surprising games with it, reminiscent in some ways of Louis Kahn’s unbuilt Fleisher house.

Rogers Stirk Harbour talks of an initial ‘emotional brief’ devoid of functional requirements

 

Here, the ground floor is spiral-wrapped in a bright red solid wall, standing outside the grid, that offers only two aspects of habitation as you approach it: the opening onto a landscaped courtyard and the passageway along one side that is the entrance. Pearson’s landscaping will play against this robust formality, with birch trees on the street sides and a magnolia grove in front. The building is cut off from its relentless context of traffic — very effectively so — and placed in a gentler world.

Internally, things are abruptly different. Columns, ceiling and floor are all of exposed concrete of very high quality. Was there a nervousness on the client’s part about this thorough use of a material often perceived by the public as cold and unsympathetic? Apparently not, as the client’s reaction was an enthusiastic “Great! Our first building with a concrete floor!”, which floor will be largely covered with carpets.

A good deal of exposed woodwork is used throughout — birch ply panelling and larch joinery — which gives a surface variety. Some of the joinery detailing gets a little chunky at times, especially where two of the heavy door frames stand next to each other. And for all the love of concrete, those columns that stand in sitting rooms have curious plywood corners stuck to them, as if wrapped for protection during building works, when they are in fact permanent.

There is no formal reception area, and the building is designed so that people can enter, use the library and leave without having to meet anyone — though a level of discreet supervision of the entrance is possible from the first floor. What you find in front of you when you come in is a staircase, and beyond it, a large open kitchen, double height, with a wood-burning stove at its heart.

Around this central space are sitting rooms and courtyard gardens. So, as in a decent house, there is the possibility of sociability and the balancing opportunity to shut oneself away alone. The rooms are well planned so that, in spite of generous openings and interconnections, sliding doors allow seclusion.

The building is refreshingly contraption-free… there are no signs anywhere

 

The building is refreshingly contraption-free. There are no signs anywhere — even the means of escape goes unmarked. There is no lift as the building is sufficiently unspecific to allow any activity to take place in any location. The kitchen has no extract hood as, after all, the only cooking done is making tea. This all adds to the “home” feeling, where ceilings are real not false, and so avoids the whole nonsensical littering of public buildings with unnecessary stuff.

Upstairs is a different place altogether, the heavy wall stopping at waist height and full glazing taking over. With so much of the lower floor having double-height spaces, the first floor becomes a world of bridges and open offices.

You are screened from the street but not from the mature plane trees that line it to the south. Openings in the projecting roof allow more light through — and rain for the gardens. It seems odd that some of these openings are not made (and of course glazed) where the roof covers internal spaces. As it is, the roof lacks the dynamic quality set up by the enclosing wall and the modulation of the grid, and seems a bit stodgy. I think the architect is also regretting not making that move.

This, however, is a great little building on a difficult site, beautifully built within a modest budget. It seems to pick up on Maggie Keswick’s love of Chinese architecture and gardens, from the intense red of the outer wall to the framed views and sliding panels. It is domestic, but abstractly so.

This is the first of seven Maggie’s Centres planned for England within the next five years. Traditionally, architects only get one go from this client, presumably to avoid any sense of institutional architecture taking hold. But considering the success of this one, that might be a pity.

Original print headline: A place like home

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