An architectural design for life

Can architecture improve cancer survival rates? A new campaign says beautiful buildings do make a difference. Jay Merrick reports

Friday 30 April 2010 00:00 BST

Beautiful and intimately humane architecture can improve the lives and survival rates of cancer sufferers. That revolutionary idea is at the heart of a campaign, launched yesterday in London, to design and build 23 Maggie's Centres for patient support at Britain's specialist cancer hospitals.

By 2015, 40 per cent of those diagnosed with the disease – one in three of the population – will have access to these small, architecturally exquisite sanctuaries of care, designed for no fee by some of the world's most famous architects.

The Maggie's Centres are named after the late Maggie Keswick Jencks, wife of the eminent architectural historian Charles Jencks. They developed the concept of non-clinical cancer care centres designed with an uplifting but soft-touch mixture of tenderness and architectural brio. The first – designed by Richard Murphy in Edinburgh – was opened in 1996, shortly after Maggie Jencks died of cancer. Bob Leonard, the oncologist who treated her, said yesterday: "In the NHS we call our buildings functional. But they're not, really. We've lost a lot. What we do in our homes and gardens is very important. Why shouldn't [care centres] be like that for cancer patients?"

Five more Maggie's Centres have been designed and built since 1996 by architects including Zaha Hadid and Frank Gehry, and the latest centre at London's Charing Cross hospital, designed by Lord Rogers' practice, won the Riba Stirling Prize last year. The buildings cost £350,000 a year to run and are funded through the Maggie's charity, whose income has ranged from major donations by the wealthy golfer Colin Montgomerie to collecting tins publicised by local newspapers.

But only now has this visionary campaign really taken off, with the next seven centres scheduled for completion by the beginning of 2012. The pulling power of this highly unusual vision of healthcare surely draws on something said by the Greek philosopher Plato: "This is the great error of our day in the treatment of the human body – that physicians separate the soul from the body."

And Edwin Heathcote, co-author with Charles Jencks of a new book called The Architecture of Hope, said yesterday: "For 3,000 years there have been beautiful hospital buildings in the heart of cities, but in the last 70 years that's been almost entirely lost – there's been a rupture." This is certainly true: light-filled, uplifting hospital architecture of the kind designed by the great Alvar Aalto in the 1930s, and the recently completed Evelina Children's Hospital in London, designed by Hopkins Architects, remains freakishly exceptional.

"The Maggie's Centres," said Heathcote, "have revived the idea of the hospital building as a contribution to healing – the building as a placebo, or a kind of drug." Trudy McLay, a user of the Frank Gehry-designed centre in Dundee, said: "Coming through the door, I just felt the building itself envelop me in love. It's bright, it's light, and the first thing you do is smile. The whole building makes you smile. We share the joy of this building."

So do the architects. Ted Cullinan, who is designing the Maggie's Centre for the north east at Newcastle, said – with characteristic glee – that the site was "bloody awful". But he spoke fervently of the architecture as "an intense investigation about the way a Maggie's Centre attempts to achieve a moral result through aesthetic means". In this case, it will produce "A pretty little thing, a building that sunbathes!"

The prospect of designing buildings offering the carefully composed comforts of both subtly monitored togetherness and privacy has been irresistible. In any other situation, it is almost inconceivable that globe-trotting architects such as Rem Koolhaas and the late Kisho Kurokawa would have donated their big-fee design resources to create buildings that cost just £1m each. Koolhaas, normally obsessed by architecture's fractious relationship with the violent surf of information and corporatism, said of their forthcoming Maggie's Centre at Gartnavel, Glasgow: "We accepted the commission with eagerness. I don't think it should be a building that challenges people to live better. Rather, it should have a direct effect on the people who use it."

Charles Jencks said the Maggie's concept could be extended to the mediation of other illnesses, notably heart disease and Alzheimer's. "If we're going to be living to be 120, we'll be spending a third of our lives in hospital. Hospitals will have to become like cities – but nice places."

The wave of new Maggie's Centres will be a wonderful demonstration of architecture driven by a profoundly ethical sense of simple, humane ideals. One must hope that these small medically utopian buildings will create a ripple effect that recalls the inspiring motto of London's Finsbury Health Centre, a small masterpiece of medical architecture designed in the late 1930s by Berthold Lubetkin: "Nothing is too good for ordinary people". How depressingly ironic that this great building is currently threatened with demolition.

The Architecture of Hope, by Charles Jencks and Edwin Heathcote, is published by Frances Lincoln Ltd

Built to last

Paimio Sanatorium, Finland, designed by Alvar Aalto, took the early Modernist ideals of light and fresh air to a literally illuminating conclusion, by putting a vast sun-deck at the top of the building, with views over forested land.

Finsbury Health Centre, by Berthold Lubetkin and Tecton, is Britain's most iconic small medical building, a GPs surgery whose design, using big glass-block panels, was almost shockingly innovative in 1938.

Ravelo Health Centre, Tenerife, designed by Gpy Architectos, has taken the Modernist idea of light and views for patients to a beautifully sculpted conclusion in which its tough exterior is softened by a timber-lined interior

Pictou Landing Health Centre, Nova Scotia, used the building crafts of the 400-strong Mi'kmaq community to create a shingled, timber-framed building that seems both radical and hunkered down to absorb whatever nature throws at it.

Purkersdorf Sanatorium, Vienna, designed by Josef Hoffman, accentuated clean lines and light to create an ambience that erased any sense of the miasmas of illness that dominated traditional hospitals.

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