Thomas Heatherwick designs Maggie’s Centre for people with cancer in Leeds, UK

Maggie’s Centre by Heatherwick Studio is a psychologically sensitive building immersed in thousands of plants, offering welcoming and soulful space for people affected by cancer.

by Meghna Mehta Published on : Jun 26, 2020

The London-based Heatherwick Studio has designed a centre for Maggie’s that recently opened in Leeds in the  UK. Maggie’s Centres provide free support for people with cancer, and believe that people should not “lose the joy of living in the fear of dying”. The centre on the campus of St. James’s University Hospital in Leeds was unveiled on June 11, 2020. The 462 sqm centre is the charity's 26th centre in the UK and the first completed healthcare project designed by Thomas Heatherwick-led studio.

The brief from Maggie’s asked to create “a home that people wouldn’t dare build for themselves” to welcome an expected 110 visitors each day. Maggie’s Centre in Leeds also showcases the studio’s long-standing interest in the role of biophilia within the built environment, which also reflects upon their recently completed project EDEN, a new residential building in Singapore; Little Island at Pier55, a new park and performance space in New York City which is due for  completion in 2021, and 1000 Trees, a mixed-use development in Shanghai. "It’s been a tremendous experience and honour to design the Maggie’s centre in Leeds. Our aim was to build a home for people affected by cancer that would be soulful and welcoming, unlike other typical clinical environments,” mentions Thomas Heatherwick, the founder of Heatherwick Studio.

  • Maggie’s Centres supports people with cancer | Maggie’s centre in Leeds by Heatherwick Studio | STIRworld
    Maggie’s Centres support people with cancer Image Credit: Courtesy of Heatherwick Studio
  • Maggie’s Center creates a sensitive environment for people with cancer | Maggies centre in Leeds by Heatherwick Studio | STIRworld
    Maggie’s Center creates a sensitive environment for people with cancer Image Credit: Courtesy of Hufton+Crow
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. – Thomas Heatherwick, Heatherwick Studio

Maggie's Centre in Leeds, designed with three separate structures with large-scale planters, is built on a sloped site, each enclosing a counselling room. The pillars of support at Maggie’s are the counselling rooms, which are placed like three pavilions while the space between them accommodates the common areas of the centre. These are surrounded by the kitchen, which is the 'heart' of the centre, as well as accommodates social spaces for group activities including a library and an exercise room. This planning results into an inviting open space, simple for visitors to navigate, connecting all the areas to the garden. Externally, this gives the building a different character from every angle.

  • Interiors of the Centre designed to make people feel at home | Maggie’s Centre in Leeds by Heatherwick Studio | STIRworld
    Interiors of the Centre designed to make people feel at home Image Credit: Courtesy of Hufton+Crow
  • The lighting is in tune with the curves of the fins and offers a homely feel | Maggie’s Centre in Leeds by Heatherwick Studio | STIRworld
    The lighting is in tune with the curves of the fins and offers a homely feel Image Credit: Courtesy of Hufton+Crow

The interior of the Maggie’s Centre explores everything that may have been often overlooked in healing environments; natural and tactile materials, soft lighting, and extends beyond the uplifting effect of its garden. The front door, for example, is a psychological threshold – the point at which someone might start to accept a cancer diagnosis. Not everyone will be ready to open the door straight away, hence they have provided a bench to sit outside, or a private path to wander quietly through the gardens. The entrance wall is transparent and the door is moved to the side under a lower roof, where it is less intimidating.

Maggie’s Leeds has been a very special project for me and my team because we are convinced that there are kinder, more empathic ways to design places that can have powerful impacts on the way that we feel. This is particularly important in the design of healthcare environments, but is so frequently overlooked. – Thomas Heatherwick, Heatherwick Studio

Inside, visitors are not confronted by a conventional reception space; instead, they find a welcoming window seat, a noticeboard, and a view through to the heart of the centre, with its communal table in the arc of a staircase leading to the kitchen. The kitchen table, a feature of all Maggie’s Centres, represents another threshold; the point where visitors feel ready to share their experiences. Everything is on display, to create no awkward rummaging through cupboards to find a mug, and a clerestory fills the space with natural light. Above this, there is a private space for staff to rest and gather strength, and a sheltered roof garden accessible to all.

  • Ground floor plan by Heatherwick Studio and planting details by landscape designer Balston Agius | Maggie’s Centre in Leeds by Heatherwick Studio | STIRworld
    Ground floor plan by Heatherwick Studio and planting details by landscape designer Balston Agius Image Credit: Courtesy of Heatherwick Studio, Balston Agius
  • Long Section by Heatherwick Studio | Maggie’s Center in Leeds by Heatherwick Studio | STIRworld
    Long Section by Heatherwick Studio Image Credit: Courtesy of Heatherwick Studio

Heatherwick Studio and the team looked at the qualities that make a building a home, and it’s depicted through the use of warm, natural materials, the way objects have been used to express individuality, and the combination of private spaces and places where people can come together coupled with gentle lighting. Between the timber fins are shelves lined, as one might have at home. For the lighting of the spaces, the studio had the idea that the wooden cores could glow, as if they were emitting light.

Timber structure construction | Maggie’s Center in Leeds by Heatherwick Studio | STIRworld
Timber structure construction Image Credit: Courtesy of Heatherwick Studio

The studio worked with award-winning landscape designer, Balston Agius, to develop the gardens inspired by Yorkshire woodlands and includes native English species of plants, alongside areas of evergreen plantation to provide warmth during the winter months. Given the shade cast on the site from adjacent buildings, the high winds and local weather, the planting is based on the British woodland, with hardy native species of plants that support the area’s existing biodiversity. Visitors are encouraged to be a part of the ecosystem by drawing inspiration from Maggie Keswick Jencks’ own love of gardening. People can voluntarily participate in the care of the 23,000 bulbs and 17,000 plants on site.

Energy saving techniques and materials such as lime plaster have been used by Heatherwick Studio | Maggie’s Center in Leeds by Heatherwick Studio | STIRworld
Energy saving techniques and materials such as lime plaster have been used by Heatherwick Studio Image Credit: Courtesy of Hufton+Crow

With a belief that great design can help people feel better, the Studio’s design philosophy evolved by constantly thinking of the use of ‘healthy’ materials and energy-saving techniques. The building's structure is built from a prefabricated and sustainably-sourced spruce timber system. Porous materials such as lime plaster help to maintain the internal humidity of the naturally-ventilated building, which has been achieved through careful consideration of the building's form and orientation.

The centre is currently open for people with cancer and their families and friends to visit, with necessary social distancing and cleaning measures and precautions also being taken care of.

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