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Working closely with expert consultants and collaborators, Heatherwick Studio has created a warm and welcoming space for the 26th Maggie’s Centre. The building and its interiors feature an abundance of verdant greenery – an important part of the charity’s tribute to founders Maggie Keswick Jencks, a writer and garden designer, and her architect husband, Charles Jencks. Visitors and patients of Maggie’s are encouraged to help care for the centre’s 23,000 bulbs and 17,000 plants.
Drawing upon the philosophy of Maggie’s and the belief that great design can help people feel better, Maggie’s Leeds uses several ‘healthy’ materials and energy-saving techniques. ‘Our aim was to build a home for people affected by cancer that would be soulful and welcoming, unlike other typical clinical environments,’ says studio founder Thomas Heatherwick. ‘By only using natural, sustainable materials and immersing the building in thousands of plants, there was a chance for us to make an extraordinary environment capable of inspiring visitors with hope and perseverance during their difficult health journeys.’
We spoke with Project Leader Angel Tenorio to find out more about the design and inspiration behind the project.
Heatherwick Studio was commissioned by Maggie’s, the cancer care charity, to develop a new centre on the site of St. James’s Hospital in Leeds, UK. The ethos from the charity very much aligned with our studio’s own values, which place the human experience at the heart of each concept – and whilst this is the studio’s first Maggie’s centre, it is the charity’s 26th centre.
Maggie’s wanted us to create an inspiring home that visitors from varied backgrounds would ‘not have dared build themselves’. As well as serving 110 visitors a day, we also wanted the centre to preserve the hospital’s only green space by making it more accessible and enjoyable to experience.
The site for the new centre was the last patch of greenery at the hospital – a grassy hill next to the car park, bounded by roads on two sides and surrounded by large buildings. The six-metre difference in level across the site would typically dictate a building dug into the slope, but instead we chose to follow its natural contours, so that at the highest point visitors would have views of the Yorkshire Dales – and a connection with the world beyond the hospital.
We knew that Maggie’s considered the kitchen to be the ‘heart’ of the centre, so this informed the programming of the space with more social spaces for group activities, including a library and exercise room surrounding the kitchen. By designing three ‘planters’, each of these could enclose a counselling room.
As well as being a highly educative and eye-opening experience to the realities of cancer and the cruel effect it can have on both physical and mental health, the project was unique to work on as it allowed us to think about all kinds of design opportunities imbued with wellbeing. For example, the timber structure of the building that is visible inside enabled us to create a domestic atmosphere and a feeling of home. This sense of comfort was also further developed through the choice of furniture and indoor plants.
From the outside, we knew an extraordinary garden (from Landscape designers Balston Agius) made up of thousands of plants and bulbs could also have a powerful and transformative effect on visitors to the centre. Inspired by Maggie Keswick Jencks’ love of gardening and knowing that gardening can help us to feel better, visitors are encouraged to participate in the care of the centre’s garden.
As a cancer care centre, wellbeing is very much at the heart of our concept. Going beyond thinking about what would make visitors feel better, we also thought about wellbeing in terms of physical properties and materiality. This is best demonstrated by the use of natural materials that are kind to the environment, like the timber structure of the centre which is made out sustainably-forested spruce, a material that will expand and contract with the seasons as if alive. Inside, we used porous and open-textured materials such as lime plasters that help to stabilise the internal humidity of the building by absorbing and releasing moisture. This makes for a more comfortable environment and reduces surface condensation and mould growth.
One of the biggest challenges we faced was about ensuring each particular space of the centre felt like it had its own character but still part of one overarching language.
The counselling rooms for one-to-one and intimate conversations needed to feel different to spaces like the exercise room for group activities. There was also a contrast between common areas such as the kitchen compared to nooks for quiet contemplation and relaxing. We decided to differentiate these spaces through varied tones, colours and textures but ones that belonged to a cohesive palette.
Furniture and finishes were an essential part of the making of the centre. Not only did we need to take into consideration aspects of design that could aid people to stand up or help with particular physical conditions, but we also wanted to avoid any hallmarks of a clinical healthcare environment.
For example, rather than using cold and harsh stainless-steel bathroom fittings which are so common in hospital environments, we chose to use wood that is organic and warm to touch. This sense of natural materiality also extended to the use of natural fibre ranges for the fabric upholstery of the furniture and use of colours that harked to nature – greens, ochres and sand.
Personally, my favourite element of the entire centre is the cork table that we designed for the kitchen. Considered to be an important piece of furniture within each Maggie’s centre for its communal quality, we designed the table out of cork in line with the overall theme of natural and highly sustainable materials. Cork also affords a soft touch and acoustic absorption properties, which we hope will prove to be practical as visitors have a chat over a cup of tea whilst visiting the centre.
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