- Insights

29TH October 2019

Tea with Maggie

Hannah Brewster

29TH October 2019




Hannah, one of our healthcare specialists, gives her view on the Maggie’s Centre in Manchester.

“Coping with any particular type of illness (cancer) is a traumatic experience, as well as a family and social problem. When one is faced with this life threatening disease the first question is often the one that Maggie asked: ‘Well how long have I got?’ or ‘Will I live?’ The aim of the [Maggie’s] centres is to transform such questions into ‘the will to live or to live better.’ Self transformation is at their hearts.” (Extracted from “The Architecture of Hope”, Charles Jencks + Edwin Heathcote.)

Maggie Keswick Jencks, the founding influence behind the concept of the Maggie’s Centres, was diagnosed as having breast cancer in 1988, aged just 47. She had a mastectomy and got on with her life, but five years later it returned, and she was told she only had a few months to live.

Maggie saw in herself, despite her initial fears, how much better she felt when she began to take an active role in her own treatment. She came to believe that this quite deliberate move from passive victim to active participant was the single most important step she took in dealing with her illness. She was living, even if she was dying (as indeed we all are). Being alive means doing, as well as being done to, engaging and enjoying, as well as enduring”. (Marcia Blakenham, foreword to “A View from the Front Line”, Maggie Keswick Jencks)

To date, 24 Maggie’s Centres have been built across the country in the grounds of specialist NHS cancer hospitals. They are: places to find practical advice and information about diet and eating well; places where qualified experts provide emotional support; environments that provide a calming place of safe refuge – a “home away from home”; friendly, warm, and welcoming places where you don’t need to book an appointment – you can just drop in and meet with other people, or quite simply sit quietly with a cup of tea.

As part of the Healthcare Estates Conference 2019, Architects for Health arranged for members to visit Maggie’s Manchester, designed and engineered by Foster + Partners, with landscape design by Dan Pearson Studio. The centre opened in the grounds of the Christie Hospital in April 2016.

The building takes a low-profile, single-storey form reflective of a domestic scale and the residential nature of the surrounding streets. Internally, aligning with the concept of Maggie’s, the kitchen is the focal heart, and provides access to varying sizes of group and individual spaces. The acoustics are incredibly successful, and cleverly executed in the building. Thoughtful changes in ceiling height, selectively crafted bespoke furniture, and tonal subtleties define spaces and make them feel open and light or small, snug, and intimate – at all times comforting, private, and safe

The structure is created from a limited set of repeated components – a kit of parts – brought together as an intricate, timber-frame structure of tapered wooden columns and beams, supported by angled cross-beams and connecting knuckle joints. The beams act as natural partitions between different internal areas, visually dissolving the building into its surrounding garden landscape. The relationship between the inside and outside is key, creating a focus on natural light and views. The south of the building extends to form a greenhouse, providing a garden retreat – a space for people to gather and enjoy the therapeutic qualities of nature and the outdoors.

Throughout the building, a palette of warm, natural wood and tactile fabrics is used. Signage and institutional references are entirely removed – there are no toilet signs or room names, and the front door and entrance are unassuming, emphasising the ‘home-like’ concept. The internal walls are white: colour is added through carefully selected artworks, and views out to the garden form a coloured backdrop and painted canvas throughout to animate the space and strengthen the building’s connection to its landscape.

Maggie’s Manchester provides a supportive backdrop and hugely welcoming, warm, friendly space, and a very special sense of “normality” and “life”. During our visit, we encountered a creative writing group at the kitchen table; a couple sitting quietly in the garden room snug; a man in a low armchair doing a puzzle in the paper; a lady taking a walk in the garden during a gap in the weather; a volunteer loading the dishwasher and topping up the milk jug; and ourselves, simply taking in the atmosphere with a cup of tea by the fireplace.

In our busy day jobs, we’re always rushing to the next deadline, taking that stressful phone call, replying to endless emails, and at risk of avoiding doing things because “we’re too busy”.

“I was talking to a lady who had just had some bad news. She was rushing around to get back to work but I think it helped that someone else gave her permission to sit and take 5 minutes to just take it all in. If I hadn’t made her that cup of tea she might not have spoken to anyone about that news today – it’s nice to know that she felt she could whilst she was here.”  (“How ‘Normal’ Maggie’s Volunteer Jeff thinks his ‘Loveliness’ is” – Maggie’s Manchester, Facebook page, 8th October 2019)

Taking the time to visit Maggie’s Manchester has reinvigorated what I always knew I loved about healthcare design. It’s a privilege to be able to use design, in however small a way, to assist in supporting and positively contributing to people’s lives at the very hardest and most challenging times.

“Above all what matters is not to lose the joy of living in the fear of dying. Involvement in one’s own treatment is an empowering weapon in this battle… The day before she died in June 1995, Maggie sat in her garden, face to the sun, and said, ‘Aren’t we lucky?’” (Marcia Blakenham, foreword to “A View from the Front Line”, Maggie Keswick Jencks)

Written by:

Regional Healthcare Director
Hannah Brewster

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