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Tuesday, 27 March 2007 06:28

Maggie's Centre | icon 043 | January 2007

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words Kieran Long

On the edge of a car park in East Fife stands Zaha Hadid’s first building in the UK.

It is also her smallest completed project, and one of her best. You might have expected this new cancer care centre in a provincial corner of Scotland to be a sketch of a building, a pint-sized icon meant more for PR than for its purpose. But Hadid has turned the inauspicious context of the car park of a 1960s hospital into a place of calm and contemplation, and made a wonderful contribution to the wellbeing of cancer sufferers and their relatives and carers.

Hadid’s building is one of a series of Maggie’s Centres: a new type of treatment centre that is now associated with world-class architects. The centres were conceived by Maggie Keswick Jencks, historian, writer and wife of architecture critic Charles Jencks. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1988, and when the cancer returned in 1993, in incurably malignant form, she began to conceive a facility for cancer sufferers that would provide the counselling and information-giving role that she saw as lacking from conventional hospitals.

Keswick Jencks died in 1995, shortly before the first Maggie’s Centre opened at Edinburgh’s Western General hospital, designed by Richard Murphy. The centre was a big success, and the original scope of the idea began to broaden. Marcia Blakenham, creative director of Maggie’s, said there was originally no ambition to make the centres into an extensive chain, but Edinburgh’s success convinced them that they should build one at each of the major cancer hospitals in the UK (of which there are around 30). So far there are five centres – Edinburgh, Glasgow (by Page & Park, opened in 2002), Dundee (Frank Gehry, 2003), Highlands (Page & Park, 2005) and now Hadid’s. Another centre is under construction at Charing Cross hospital in London (by Richard Rogers) and others are planned in Cambridge (by Daniel Libeskind) and elsewhere.

The buildings are not funded by the NHS but by donations to the Maggie’s Centre charity. In the case of Hadid’s, £600,000 of the £1 million contract sum was donated by the people of East Fife. These buildings are a source of great local pride and a sign of the profound emotions that cancer prompts in people. According to Maggie’s, one in three people will suffer from cancer at some point in their lives – it’s not hard to see why people feel so strongly.

Hadid says she was “humbled and proud” to be asked to design the building, and gave a moving account of her relationship with Keswick Jencks in a speech at the opening dinner. It is clear that the commission (and the fact that Charles Jencks, one of Hadid’s tutors at the Architectural Association in the 1970s, was part of the commissioning body) means a great deal to her. Hadid worked on a pro bono basis and could not spend much time on site. Her project director, Tiago Correia, and the contractor were given a lot of credit by the Maggie’s Centre staff for the success of the project, and the day I visited was the first day Hadid herself had seen the completed building.

Like Hadid’s Strasbourg car park and tram station of 2001, this project makes something extraordinary out of almost nothing – and the reason is that there is a strong rationale behind the form of the building. The site is on the edge of the car park of the Victoria Hospital in Kirkcaldy, a 45-minute train ride north of Edinburgh. The hospital, in a residential suburb, donated the lease of a small site just outside the front door looking over an overgrown pit that was once an opencast mine. Hadid has transformed these unpropitious surroundings. Triangular in plan, her building is a wrapped black surface that shields itself against the car park but opens up completely to the fragment of wilderness behind it. The south facade has a generous terrace, shaded by an overhang, overlooking a small but charming dell. At the opening ceremony, Gordon Brown (MP for Kirkcaldy), Hadid and Jencks threw handfuls of wildflower seeds from the terrace to further beautify the view next spring.

One entrance is along a concrete catwalk that leads from the car park to the terrace. The other will be the more often used, as it faces the hospital. A wedge of the black facade reaches out arm-like to embrace the approaching visitor and lead them to the entrance at the north-eastern corner. There is no reception desk and no institutional paraphernalia. Turning to your right you see first a fireplace, in the centre of the 300sq m building, and next to it a large kitchen table. The kitchen is the social heart of all the Maggie’s Centres, and here it is the centre of the building too, half-enclosed by a curving wall.

On the car park side of the plan are the private consultation rooms, and this is perhaps the only questionable part of the planning. The northern-most room is alarmingly open to the exterior, and the Maggie’s staff said they will be putting up curtains. In general, though, these rooms are intimate and the most considered small-scale interiors I have seen in a Hadid building, with lightly convex walls, north-facing glazing and a mix of roof lights and indirect artificial lighting washing the curving walls. The rooms are cool without being medical, and are very beautiful. The doors to these rooms are more like movable pieces of wall, which can pivot open to increase the small space.

Apart from these three rooms, the building is open plan, with a minor change in level down to a lounge area. This space, which looks out through the glazed south facade to the greenery beyond, is where group therapy sessions, yoga classes and the like will take place. The feeling is domestic, although more case study house than Kirkcaldy semi.

The structure of the building is made of steel, and the external surfaces are rendered in a specially developed liquid-applied polyurethane. “Initially we intended it to be Corten steel,” says Correia, “but there were budget reasons for having to drop that. We wanted something equally mineral.” To the black paint was added a final coat containing silicone carbide grit, which makes the black building sparkle with tiny silver specks. It is conceived as a folding up of the asphalt surface it sits on, but reminded me more of the sparkling granite of the buildings in Aberdeen after a rain shower.

Crucially, this building is a success in how it fulfils the most important part of its brief. The Kirkcaldy Maggie’s Centre is a different place to anywhere else that a cancer patient might experience in their treatment. There is no sense in asking why all healthcare buildings aren’t like this – the whole point is that it is emphatically different from its surroundings. If hospitals were like this, Maggie’s Centres would have to be otherwise. And there is possibly no better architect at making you feel removed from your context.

In just 300sq m in a hospital car park, Hadid has created a place a world away from NHS waiting rooms and double-loaded corridors. It is the staff that make Maggie’s Centres what they are, but this building must help. “Above all what matters is not to lose the joy of living in the fear of dying,” wrote Keswick Jencks. Hadid has made a joyful building that will improve people’s lives. How much more than that can you ask?


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