Bilbao architect puts his stamp on Dundee - for free

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Frank Gehry, the world's most celebrated architect, whose most renowned work is the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, has designed his first British building - entirely for love, without a fee.

Frank Gehry, the world's most celebrated architect, whose most renowned work is the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, has designed his first British building - entirely for love, without a fee.

"It is just about my best yet," said Gehry of his final blueprint for Maggie's Cancer Caring Centre on an elevated site in Dundee with panoramic views across the Tay estuary.

The Los Angeles-based architect committed himself to the project after his Scottish friend Maggie Keswick Jencks died from breast cancer in 1995. Jencks had pioneered a revolutionary approach to provision of support for cancer sufferers, which saw fruit in 1996 with the first Maggie's Centre in Edinburgh.

Gehry's Dundee Maggie's Centre is the second of a chain planned throughout Britain, including Cambridge, Sheffield, Glasgow and Inverness.

For several months last year he set aside lucrative offers of work to provide Maggie and Dundee with perhaps the only Gehry structure that will ever grace Britain, so heavy are the 71-year-old's future commitments in America alone.

"I wanted to do justice to Maggie's vision for the Centre," said Gehry. "The whole process was intuitive. I dreamt about Maggie constantly and put a great deal of time and emotion into the project. What came out of it is as good as anything I've done, including Bilbao."

When the Basque administration commissioned Gehry to design the £65m Guggenheim Museum, his brief was to ensure that it would attract visitors from around the globe. He succeeded. Since it opened, more than two million have visited the museum, hailed by many of his fellow architects as the most important building of our time.

Project coordinator Karen Anderson hopes Gehry's reputation will do the same for the city of Dundee when building begins in seven months' time. "It's a great honour for us to have the Gehry imprint on the Centre," she said. "His Gug-genheim proved that people will travel halfway round the world to look at a building as well as its contents. It stands as evidence that a building can put a town on the map."

Gehry, whose £240m Experience Music Project opened in Seattle last month, said the steel roof of his Maggie's Centre would ripple softly, capturing light to make a warm, uplifting gesture of welcome to people from the cancer unit of Dundee's Ninewells Hospital.

Ninewells is the location of a complex of pioneering cancer research and treatment centres which have acquired an international reputation. But the hospital's architecture would not be out of place in 1950s Poland. It horrified Gehry who visited the city several times to reflect on its character and try to incorporate it in his design.

"When I saw Ninewells," he said, "I thought, my God, the people who built this had no hearts."

Gehry's building incorporates a structure based on a Scottish broch, a late Iron Age fortified dwelling unique to Scotland.

"It's unlike anything I've ever seen," said Mark O'Connor, a local architect overseeing Gehry's Dundee project. "It is revolutionary, and would not have been technically possible a few years ago."

Gehry's and Maggie Jencks' friendship developed when her husband, Charles, was visiting professor of landscape architecture at the University of California. Her idea for Maggie's Centres grew from her own experience of extended illness. She realised that people required something more than medical treatments: they needed emotional and psychological support as they fought the toughest battles of their lives.

The first Maggie's Centre in Edinburgh was designed to be full of zest and life and colour, with light flooding in from a ridge roof-light. People feeling frightened or anxious about coping with cancer can drop in to consult the resident professionals, to cook a meal or have massage. Its success has not only given new hope and insights to cancer patients, it also lured Frank Gehry to Britain.