architecture design health

Building of the week: Maggie’s, Leeds

In previous posts I’ve written about biophilic architecture, a movement that creates buildings with a connection to nature. Through their forms, materials, views, the way they use light and shadow, they are places that we feel at home in. I’ve also written about how buildings like that can have therapeutic effects, demonstrated most spectacularly by this hospital in Singapore that is designed to lower blood pressure and help patients relax and heal.

This is another example, this time from Leeds in the North of England. It’s for the cancer charity Maggie’s. They’re an interesting charity, founded by the gardener and designer Maggie Keswick Jencks and inspired by her own experience of cancer treatment. She found herself dealing with life-changing news in a windowless corridor, and knew that it didn’t need to be that way. She spent her final years designing the sort of building that cancer patients needed, a place that was welcoming, supportive, calming.

The blueprints for that first centre were spread out on the bed when she died of cancer three years later, and the project was taken forward by her husband and her nurse – who is now the CEO of Maggie’s. There are now 27 such centers around the UK, and the first Maggie’s projects overseas have opened in Barcelona, Hong Kong and Tokyo. It’s a remarkable legacy, inspired by the insight that “above all what matters is not to lose the joy of living in the fear of dying.”

The latest Maggie’s centre, the one in Leeds, just won the Stephen R Kellert Biophilic Design Award. It’s the work of Heatherwick Studios, and it looks like this:

Set on the campus of St James’ University Hospital, the centre is a green refuge in amongst the concrete medical buildings. It consists of three ‘planters’, which contain counselling rooms and gardens on top. There are social spaces, a library and an exercise room. Like all of Maggie’s buildings, all of which are unique, it is based around a kitchen table at the centre.

The structure of the building is timber, curved to create welcoming pockets of space. Glass walls blend the outside and the inside.

I wrote recently about ‘generous architecture’, and this is a good example of that too: “window sills and shelves are intended for visitors to fill with their own objects to create a sense of home.” That ethic extends into the garden, which patients help to care for. As Marwa Al-Sabouni writes in her book on architectures of belonging, generous places don’t just offer something to us. They also ask something of us in return. Can we really feel at home in a place that asks nothing of us? Tending and watering the gardens fulfils that role here.

I think that good architecture – especially architecture for everyone rather than just the wealthy – has a huge role to play in a sustainable future. It’s more than just making energy efficient buildings and lowering carbon emissions. It’s about spaces that build community and common ground, that raise standards of living without raising consumption.

A beautiful building like this one will enhance people’s lives for decades to come, a perfect example of progress as quality rather than quantity. This is an architecture fit for Arrival.

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