The world-famous architect, the cancer victim and the dream that turned into a glittering prize

The 2004 Building of the Year Award acknowledges not only a master designer but also a poignant legacy. Terry Kirby explains

Tucked away in the grounds of a hospital in Dundee, Maggie's Cancer Care Centre ought to be just another ordinary and anonymous NHS building. But its wavy stainless-steel roof and central lighthouse-like tower suggest that it is something very different.

Tucked away in the grounds of a hospital in Dundee, Maggie's Cancer Care Centre ought to be just another ordinary and anonymous NHS building. But its wavy stainless-steel roof and central lighthouse-like tower suggest that it is something very different.

These features are signs, to those who know, that this small building, which cost £1.3m, is the work of Frank Gehry, considered by many the world's greatest living architect. And yesterday its bravura style was recognised when it was awarded the nation's top accolade for building design.

Naming the centre as its Building of the Year, the Royal Fine Art Commission Trust, which chose from buildings built last year, said it possessed "outstanding architectural features" but was also a building of the "highest social significance" in its role providing care for cancer sufferers.

The building has a poignant story: it is named after the late Maggie Keswick Jencks, the Scottish artist, designer and landscape gardener, who died from breast cancer in 1995. The building was designed free by her great friend, Gehry, and it is his first work in the United Kingdom.

Significantly, the judges chose Maggie's Cancer Care Centre ahead of the building which many might have tipped for the award but which represents a different kind of architectural enterprise, the shining, "bubble-wrapped" Selfridges building in Birmingham. The building, designed by the cutting-edge London practice Future Systems, who were responsible for the space-age media centre at Lords cricket ground, as a monument to consumer culture and urban buzz, did take the commission's specialist award for retail innovation.

Lord St John of Fawsley, the chairman of the trust, said Maggie's Cancer Care Centre was "just as great" as the other building for which Gehry is renowned, the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. "Although small, it has an astonishing variety of outstanding architectural features, including its undulating roof, its space, its landmark tower and its command of one of the most beautiful views in Britain seen through a specially constructed and shaped picture window," he said.

The design takes its themes from the view of the Tay estuary; the central tower resembles a lighthouse while the steel roof appears to change colour according to the light and is said to appear like waves breaking on rocks.

The building, at Ninewells Hospital in Dundee, is the third in a series of 10 being established around the country by the organisation set up in memory of Keswick Jencks, Maggie's Centres. Encouraged by the success of the Gehry project and at the invitation of her husband, the American architectural critic and historian, Charles Jencks, each building is being designed by the world's leading architects.

They include Lord Rogers, working on the London centre at Charing Cross Hospital; Zaha Hadid, who is creating a centre in Kirkcaldy, Fife; Piers Gough, working in Nottingham and Daniel Libeskind, the architect of the World Trade Centre site, working at Addenbroke's Hospital in Cambridge.

The centres are staffed by unpaid volunteers and they help recently diagnosed people as well as those in the later stages of the disease, offering sympathy and advice. Lord Fawsley said: "People suffering major threats to health do not wish to be written off but rather they need constructive and loving care. Above all, they need a place of beauty in which to rest. We all owe a great aesthetic and social debt to Maggie, Frank and Charles for this magnificent contribution to the relief of human suffering."

Keswick Jencks had wanted to provide a supplementary service to orthodox NHS treatment, where patients could get support and complementary treatment. She said: "What matters is not to lose the joy of living in the fear of dying."

Gehry met the Jencks in the late 1970s when they were living in California, where he is still based. In a recent interview, he described his first impression of Keswick Jencks as "this fancy lady from Britain, with family titles and all that stuff, to which I was susceptible to because of my upbringing". Gehry, now 75, comes from a working-class Jewish background in Canada. Keswick Jencks was a member of an upper-class Scottish family, linked by marriage to the Jardine Matheson company, which virtually ran Hong Kong when it was a British colony.

The architect said he agonised over designs for the building but recalls that the eventual shape came after Keswick Jencks appeared to him in a dream and told him to "calm it down". The design of the roof, he said, was based on a shawl worn by a woman in a Vermeer portrait, which reminded him of Keswick Jencks.

He travelled several times from California to Dundee, where the day-to-day work was done by local architects. He said: "I hope the architecture won't override the purpose of the building, but complement it and take it to a higher plane of comfort and beauty."

Gehry's other projects dwarf Maggie's Centre. Apart from the Guggenheim, his other major building in recent years has been the multimillion-pound Disney Hall, a massive concert auditorium in Los Angeles, which took 15 years to complete and is his first significant design in his adopted state.

In this country, Jencks and Keswick Jencks are best known for the spectacular sculptural garden which they created at Portrack, their home in Dumfriesshire, called the Garden of Cosmic Speculation. Landform, another part-garden, part-sculpture by Jenks, in the grounds of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh, won the gallery the £100,000 Gulbenkian museum of the year prize.

Other architectural projects singled out for special awards by the Commission yesterday include the design for the Rolls-Royce headquarters in Chichester by Nicholas Grimshaw, the architect of the "bio-domes" of the Eden Project in Cornwall, which took the manufactory award. The specialist award for bridges went to Wilkinson Eyre Architects for the extraordinary, twisting, glass-and-timber "Bridge of Aspirations" which links the Royal Ballet School and the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden.

The £15m restoration of the Grade II-listed Hackney Empire in east London by Tim Ronald's Architects, won the award for conservation and the Landmark Trust award went to the Leamington Spa firm of Rodney Melville for the restoration of the Jacobean-era West Banqueting House and Almonry at Chipping Camden in Gloucestershire.

2004 Building of the Year Award winners

Building of the Year Award

Maggie's Cancer Care Centre, Ninewells Hospital, Dundee Designed: Frank Gehry.

Executive architects: James F Stephen Architects

Specialist Award: Offices

Allies and Morrison Architects, 85 Southwark Street, London SE1

Architects: Allies and Morrison

Specialist Award: Retail Innovation

Selfridges, The Bull Ring, Birmingham

Architects: Future Systems

Specialist Award: Architectural Education

Colour Theory Installation, University of the West of England, Frenchay Campus, Bristol

Artist: Andy Bradford

Specialist Award: Bridge

The Bridge of Aspirations, Royal Ballet School in Floral Street, Covent Garden, central London

Architects: Wilkinson Eyre Architects

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