The Healing Power of Architecture
This week we truly experienced the power of architecture. Manchester Maggie’s Centre by Foster and Partners is a living example of how good architecture can be restorative, joyful and even spiritual.
There are 20 Maggie’s Centres across the UK and they are all linked to NHS cancer hospitals. They provide practical, emotional and social support to any kind of cancer patient.
Sinead Collins, who is the centre head and has a background in oncology, is completely won over. The building is not only a space in which healing takes place, but is truly an integral part of the healing process. She is utterly convinced that the building itself; the smell of it, the sound of it and the feel of it is fundamental to the patient's experience. The symbiotic relationship that people have with this building is something that goes beyond the theoretical and is very real. One of the drivers behind the design is the comfort people feel in knowing what is going on around them; “The front door squeaks but I’ll never get it fixed.” The happy accident of the squeaking door allows Sinead to know when a patient enters so she can make her way over to welcome them. From every room in the building you can see the sky. There is a ‘pause’ space when you walk into the building where sometimes patients breakdown, overwhelmed and perhaps for the first time relaxed enough to let go. From there you can immediately see the kitchen, a universal orientator, and the place where much of the ‘conversational therapy’ happens. The whole building, meticulously and deliberately planned, is encouraging people to relax and talk and feel reassured.
The glazed covered area at the end of the building axis is full of well cared for plants and cuttings. Apparently this unsuspecting area can be a place where people less inclined to indulge in conversations about their feelings can get some “accidental therapy”. The delightful garden can be enjoyed even in the Manchester rain, something one can imagine being particularly cathartic when handling heavy burdens.
The Maggie’s Centre philosophy of making places and spaces to nurture conversation is cleverly executed. There are no signs anywhere, not even on the toilet doors. “Excuse me, where can I find the toilet” is an opportunity to start a conversation.
The two hundred meter approach to the building from The Christie Hospital is equally well considered. Tree lined, it is dappled green and fresh in the summer and smells of wood smoke from the burners in the centre in the winter.
One of the most remarkable aspects of the design is its very situation, slap bang in the middle of a tarmaced car park but you “could be in a village green”. The building is sunken into the ground by about a meter with a planted brick and timber wall protecting it from the surroundings. The landscaping designed by Dan Pearson is intimate and country garden like. ‘Horrible handrails’ have been replaced with pot plants and herbs. People donate seeds and cuttings. The flourishing veg patch creates an opportunity to talk about nutrition as many cancers are apparently caused by unhealthy lifestyles.
Of course, on our tour organised by Manchester Architects, we architects were melting over the immaculate details, but even they sort of paled into insignificance behind the overall restorative effect of the building itself. This is a building which is so utterly well considered that it’s created a space which is not even about itself anymore. It is what it does and it does what it is. A great example that the best architecture is truly greater than the sum of its parts.