Some of the star architects invited to design drop-in cancer support centres for the Maggie’s charity seem to regard the pro-bono commission as an opportunity to produce a signature building. Such an outcome is undoubtedly a boon to the charity in terms of media attention and fundraising, and invariably provides a compelling alternative to the norm of standardised, plasticised hospital environments. However, there can also be a tendency to shift the focus away from providing an optimum setting for the organisation’s valuable work. At the newest centre, in Oldham, dRMM has avoided such temptations and instead produced a building that is objective, sensible, logical and intelligent.
Sited between three red-brick buildings at the Royal Oldham Hospital, dRMM’s building is distinctly separate from, but aligned with its neighbours. What now seems a logical location, however, transpires to have been a bold choice. The initial site offered – in the centre of a car park – was rejected by the architects for its prominence. Instead, they suggested a more challenging location on a steep slope at the side of the hospital, on the site of an old mortuary.
This was an astute choice, not least because it avoided the centre becoming an intimidating architectural trophy, visible from all sides. It also had the effect of reducing the psychological barriers of approaching and entering the building.
The horizon is often invoked as a metaphor for hope by Charles Jencks, who co-founded the charity with his late wife, Maggie Keswick Jencks. In response to this, dRMM opted to raise the building up so that visitors have a spectacular, uplifting view over the hospital wall across Oldham Athletic football ground to the distant Pennines. The elevated position also allows lift-free, level access from the NHS Victoria Centre Breast Care unit.
The building is essentially an unassuming box, raised above the ground in a manner reminiscent of a number of Marcel Breuer’s post-war houses. Like them, it is pushed to the north of the site to create a southerly aspect. This serves to distance the building from the hospital and make an area for a stepped garden with seating and a shaded terrace and working greenhouse. Beneath the raised structure is a beautiful shaded garden designed with Rupert Muldoon.
Project director Alex de Rijke says the simple timber exterior is “more about content than form”, so it’s no surprise that it is in the interior that we find the most architectural interest. Cut through the centre of the raised box is an amoeba-shaped aperture encased by rippling glass. It lets light in from above whilst framing a silver birch tree that grows from the garden below. The curving shape evokes the natural form of a lake or pond and also, inevitably, Alvar Aalto’s famous glass vase. The organic profile is not entirely arbitrary, however, as it fulfills a key component in the Maggie’s brief by bulging inwards to offer a pause point at the entrance.
Throughout the project, intelligent and responsible design choices have been made with both the client and visitors in mind. However, where the building is really pioneering is in its use of materials, especially timber. Maggie’s Oldham is seen by dRMM as a manifesto of how buildings can provide a fresh, uplifting and caring environment while reducing potentially harmful materials. The centre is the world’s first permanent hardwood cross-laminated timber (CLT) building, using unfinished sustainable American tulipwood, which has a higher strength and lighter mass than CLT made from spruce or pine, which brings cost and structural benefits.
The timber interior is visually soft and natural, and affects its humidity, smell and acoustics. These aspects are hard to quantify, but they result in a space that is calm, human and welcoming – qualities far removed from the sealed norms of typical hospital environments.
A common side-effect of chemotherapy treatment – surprising to many – is an increased sensitivity to hot and cold. Hence the use of timber wherever possible, from cupboard doors to a birch handle on the Scandinavian kettle. (I was pleased also to see the use of door handles, grabrails and coat hooks that I designed for Allgood for just this purpose.) Warm-to-touch timber also guided the selection of loose furniture, which echoes the Breuer and Aalto references, with mid-century pieces by Lucian Ercolani, Carl Hansen and Arne Jacobsen. Tulipwood is also employed externally in the thermally-modified, secret-fixed sinusoidal cladding.
The use of timber, the horizon views, the sunshine yellow floor and the central tree all help to transform an unpromising site into a special place that will help visitors affected by cancer not to “lose the joy of living in the fear of dying”, as Maggie Keswick Jencks hoped. Like other centres in the network, Maggie’s Oldham represents a radical departure from the norm in hospital environments; one that is natural, warm, joyous and alive. In this dRMM has excelled and designed something not just for the people of Oldham but for all of us.