Frank Gehry’s Maggie’s centre has been open for three years. Martin Spring paid a visit to find out how well it has served the cancer patients that use it. And on page 60, he reviews the latest centre, which also happens to be Zaha Hadid’s first completed project in the UK

Five-star ratings

Functionality 4/5

Maggie’s Dundee is the antithesis of the standard medical building: its domestic scale interior, rounded forms and ample daylight are reassuring and therapeutic for cancer sufferers. Its intimate, open-plan spaces are conducive to social intercourse, and there is an upstairs room for contemplation. On the other hand, the building is restricted by lack of storage.

Impact 4/5

With its crumpled silvery roof and lighthouse tower, the building is as iconic as a miniature version of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, which was also designed by Frank Gehry.

The bright interior, with its concave walls, spectacular views and natural timberwork is uplifting and refreshing. But it gets too hot and stuffy in the summer.

Build quality 4/5

The fearfully complex building is standing up well to the weather sweeping in from the Firth of Tay. But external timberwork is showing tide marks from dampness and its few opening windows are tricky to operate.

Maggie’s Dundee basics

The Maggie’s Centre in Dundee opened in September 2003 and it remains the only completed building in the UK designed by Canadian architect Frank Gehry. It is one of a network of five counselling and support centres for cancer sufferers and their families, which are typically built in the grounds of a hospital. The tiny centres were the brainchild of architect Maggie Keswick-Jencks, before she herself succumbed to breast cancer in 1995.

Functionality

Reassuring interior

From the instant you step through the front door of the Dundee centre, you are enveloped by a building that is palpably warm, homely and reassuring. This comforting ambience serves as a prime function of a Maggie’s centre, which aims to provide spiritual reassurance, personal counselling and practical advice for cancer sufferers.

The homely effect is created by a circular hallway and four domestic-scale rooms opening off it. The whole assemblage is flooded in daylight through a glazed roof and large south-facing windows.

As Valerie Busher, the centre’s fund-raising co-ordinator, puts it: “When you have gone through chemotherapy and are pale and have lost all your hair, the last thing you want to do is to sit in a clinical hospital waiting room with lots of people walking past you. People come here feeling defensive, but the building makes them feel relaxed. They can have a cup of tea here and chat to each other.”

Lesley Howells, the centre’s head and consultant clinical psychologist, adds: “The building feels ‘alive’ and gives people a sense of value and worth. You can’t dissociate it from the personal relationships we have with the visitors. Each feeds the other.”

The reassuring character of the building also serves a more basic medical purpose. Charles Jencks, Maggie’s widower and an architectural critic, says a prime goal of the centre is to lower the stress of cancer sufferers and this in itself is therapeutic.

Sociable spaces

“I came here feeling pretty run-down,” says Ann Ferguson, one of the centre’s patients. “Everyone was a stranger to me, but within a matter of minutes we were all talking together.”

Like the four staff members and constant stream of voluntary carers and patients, as well as the friends and family who frequent the centre, the building emanates a friendly character that encourages visitors to share their experiences with others. It also assists group sessions and workshops, which make up a weekly programme and cover subjects such as nutrition, stress reduction, women’s networking and welfare benefits advice.

Visitors are drawn into spontaneous chats and more formal group sessions by the open internal layout. Nearly all the accommodation is grouped in five rooms that flow into each other. The only partition is a clear-glazed screen to the common room. “It’s good that everything is open to view as soon as you step inside,” says Busher. “Except for two small consulting rooms, there are no closed doors, no signs and no corridors.” The five rooms are the size of large domestic

living rooms and are furnished with soft armchairs and upholstered benches. The rooms serve slightly different, yet overlapping functions. The nutrition workshop, for instance, starts off with discussions in the common room and then moves next door into the dining-kitchen for a practical cooking demonstration, which then supplies a hearty dinner.

Private areas for retreat

Two small rooms next to the staff office are used for private consultations on sensitive matters. Visitors and their families can retreat to an upstairs room in the tower, where they can talk or contemplate silently and draw inspiration from the secluded, wraparound space graced by ample daylight and a magnificent panorama of the Firth of Tay.

“The tranquility of the place is wonderful,” says volunteer Sarah Safian. “In the upstairs room, I just sit quietly and take in the view.”

Barrier around reception desk

The staff office behind the reception desk joins in the open-plan layout, except that the desk encircling the office space comes with a shoulder-height timber screen that, as Busher admits, forms a barrier between staff and visitors. A glass screen at the reception point facing the front door has been removed to help break down this barrier.

Lack of storage

This is one of the downsides of making the whole building accessible to the public and keeping the curving plastered walls clear for artwork. On Building’s visit, the bench and much of the floor in the staff office was taken over by large boxes of brochures, in readiness for a fundraising mailshot.

Neither is there any external storage space. The metal refuse bin and lawnmower are kept in a poky alcove outside the window of the dining-kitchen, where they are visible from the main approach to the building and clutter its form.

Limited external access

With no steps either into or within the building, other than the curving staircase up to the contemplation room in the tower, the building is fully accessible to wheelchair users and other infirm people. It also lies a few steps from its own dedicated car park and vehicle drop-off point, and a couple of minutes’ walk from a public bus stop.

On the other hand, the footpath to the main hospital dips steeply down through a gloomy copse of evergreens before rising up again. A new footpath that would skirt round the copse and its steep incline is now proposed.

Impact

Iconic building

Like a miniature version of Gehry’s Guggenheim museum in Bilbao, the centre lives up to the overused concept of an iconic building. Its status has been acknowledged in a clutch of accolades from the RIBA, the Civic Trust and the Royal Fine Art Commission. The building has the essential attribute of an architectural icon – a unique and instantly recognisable appearance, which in this case derives from its crumpled roof covered in silvery stainless-steel sheets and a lighthouse-like tower. The building’s position atop a hillock makes it even more memorable.

This iconic status serves a vital function in advertising the centre to several groups of people. Foremost are those diagnosed with cancer, who are invited to visit voluntarily to seek support and advice. As Lynn Downie, the centre’s information and support specialist, explains: “Over at the hospital you are given an appointment to attend and don’t have much choice. But coming to the Maggie’s Centre involves a choice and you have to acknowledge that you have cancer. Anyone can come in whenever they choose between 9am and 5pm.”

The building also appeals to the local population at large. “Because of its iconic form, because it’s designed by one of the world’s most prestigious architects and because they contributed funds towards it, it has a high profile in the community. People in Tayside feel they own it,” says Howells. “They use us for counselling, or as their favoured charity. If we had been housed in a site cabin, we wouldn’t have had that sense of pride and ownership.”

Uplifting character

“I find the building uplifting and refreshing,” says Geoffrey Robinson, who has been attending group sessions for nearly a year, in between treatment sessions for colonic cancer at the hospital next door.

That inspirational character derives from the organic shape of the interior with concave walls and its zig-zag roof with exposed beams, rafters and boarding in untreated timber. The window frames and internal fittings are also in tactile natural timber.

Daylight floods in through the glazed roof and large windows and there are stunning vistas over mature trees. A collection of artwork graces the walls, including a large tapestry and lithographs by a celebrated son of Dundee, the late Sir Eduardo Paolozzi.

Makes the most of its site

Gehry’s design makes inspiring use of a wonderful site on the brow of a hillock within a mature parkland. As viewed from the approach road, its hilltop position enhances the building’s sculptural form. From the inside, it faces out over the parkland to the Firth of Tay, a view that is often enhanced by incredible sunsets.

Overheating in summer

The dining-kitchen can get hot, owing to sunshine pouring through the glazed roof and south-facing window walls. The problem is aggravated by a lack of blinds and sunshades, and by inadequate ventilation. Ventilation is mainly provided by a row of bottom-hung windows, located directly behind the bench in the dining-kitchen, where they cause drafts. Howells now plans to install window blinds.

No landscaping

Although the building sits in a rolling park of mature trees, its immediate surroundings are bare lawn and a strip of tarmac car parking. A renowned landscape architect, Arabella Lennox-Boyd, recently volunteered to add some planting, which should mediate between the building and the parkland.

Build quality

Damp patches on external timberwork

Tide marks are visible in the timber spandrels below the ground-floor windows and varnish is peeling off the timber bench on the terrace. Fred Stephen, partner of executive architect James F Stephen, admits the finishes were specified at Gehry’s practice in Los Angeles, where there was little appreciation of the severity of the Scottish climate.

Roof bearing up

The fearfully complex sculptural roof, with its irregular double-curving folded plates supported on exposed timber beams, rafters and plywood decking, is showing no signs of weathering, other than slight fading of the timberwork. The building’s occupants report no rainwater leaks through the roof.

Although the building is exposed to the full force of North Sea gales, neither is there any sign of displacement of the oversized shingles covering the roof. In fact, the stainless-steel sheets have not puckered like the titanium cladding to Gehry’s Guggenheim in Bilbao.

The good weathering record is the result of belt-and-braces detailing that entailed two layers of bitumen and an extra-thick gauge of stainless steel for the shingles.

Windows difficult to open

The low-level windows in the dining-kitchen are awkward to reach when people are seated along the window bench. And as they are 1m wide, with catches on either side, they call for very long arms to open.