Designing Maggie’s Manchester

Thursday 6 October

Designing Maggie’s Manchester

Every Maggie’s Centre is designed by a renowned architect to be a unique and beautiful place where anyone affected by cancer can find the help they need. Maggie’s Manchester, which opened in May 2016, was designed by one of Britain’s most respected architects, Norman Foster. He tells us how his own experience of cancer informed the design of the new Centre.

When I was first asked to design a Maggie’s Centre, I was delighted. Some of the world’s best known and most renowned architects – names like Frank Gehry and the late Zaha Hadid – have designed Maggie’s Centres (in Dundee and Fife respectively), and for an architect, being asked to design one is something of an honour.

All Maggie’s Centres to date have been inspired acts of patronage, and it was a privilege to be able to contribute to this legacy. But this building also holds a particular personal significance for me – I was born in Manchester and have first-hand experience of the distress of a cancer diagnosis.

But you may well ask why it’s important for Maggie’s Centres to be well designed.

The answer to this question goes right back to the origins of the Maggie’s charity, when my friend Maggie Keswick Jencks was being treated for cancer.

Maggie, a garden designer, and her husband Charles, a renowned architectural theorist, recognised a need for a place where people could go during treatment that offered some respite from the clinical environment of an NHS hospital. This idea evolved into a blueprint for a “cancer caring centre” where visitors would have free access to the kind of practical, emotional and social support that isn’t available on the NHS.

As with every Maggie’s Centre, the purpose of this building is to be a refuge where you are comforted and informed–particularly after your diagnosis. Before this you will have received the life-changing news that you have cancer in an institutional environment. Having been through that experience myself, I felt that I would like to apply my skills as an architect to create a place that puts the interests of the patient first – to try to create a more human place.

For so many people – more all the time – there is life after cancer, even if that is a changed life. I believe that quality in care and design can go hand-in-hand, and together be more effective.

Myself and the other architects at my firm Foster + Partners spoke with visitors, volunteers and Maggie’s staff to get a good understanding of what Maggie’s means to them and what makes these Centres so special. Hearing personal stories and first-hand experiences added to our understanding of what the Centre should be. Personal memories helped us immensely to share ideas and thoughts with colleagues and consultants, to ensure that every aspect of the design was tailored to meet the needs of the building’s users.

My hope is that people who spend time in Maggie’s Manchester will feel at home. We have created a building that is welcoming, friendly and without any of the institutional references of a hospital or health centre–a light-filled, homely space where people can gather to talk or simply reflect. That’s why the kitchen, itself the heart of the building, is centred on a large, communal table.

Throughout the building there is a focus on natural light, greenery and views, with a greenhouse to provide fresh flowers, and an emphasis on the therapeutic qualities of nature and the outdoors.

Seen from the outside, I hope the building looks spectacular, but it’s what’s inside that matters most. The palette of materials we have used combines warm, natural wood, tactile fabrics, and natural clay tiles for the floor. We made a conscious decision to use timber as the primary building material for its naturalness and warmth and to connect the building with the surrounding greenery.

The furniture we have designed also places an emphasis on warmth and soft edges, and has been designed using a variety of tactile materials such as timber, slate, cast iron and fabric.

Every Maggie’s Centre has a garden, and these, too, are carefully designed to create calm and tranquil spaces – even though most of them are in or near the car park of a busy NHS hospital. In the case of Maggie’s Manchester, the garden was created by Dan Pearson – the award-winning garden designer who also did the garden at Maggie’s West London.

Throughout the Centre, there is a focus on natural light, greenery and views to the garden. The plan is punctuated by landscaped courtyards and the entire western side extends into a wide veranda, which is sheltered from the rain by the deep overhang of the roof. Sliding glass doors open the building up to its green setting. Each treatment and counselling room on the eastern side faces its own private garden.

The greenhouse to the sunny south of the building provides a garden retreat, a space for people to gather, to work with their hands and enjoy the therapeutic qualities of nature and the outdoors, while being protected from the rain.

For me and my team, the process of designing Maggie’s Manchester has been a very exciting challenge. But like most architects, I am always anxious to know how a building has been received by its users, which is the ultimate test. I hope the new Maggie’s Centre inspires a renewed sense of hope and optimism in its visitors.