When writer and garden designer Maggie Keswick Jencks was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1993, together with her husband, the architectural writer Charles Jencks, she set about her creating a charity project to provide cancer sufferers with expert support within a more sympathetic built environment.
Although Maggie died before her first centre was opened in 1996, her vision has flourished and there are now 13 Maggie’s Centres, of which Swansea is the latest. Others have been designed by such architectural notables as Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Richard Rogers and Rem Koolhaas.
The Swansea Maggie’s started life as a concept design by the legendary Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa. At a dinner in London with Charles Jencks and Thore Garbers he conceived the centre as kind of “cosmic whirlpool”, responding to and tapping into the natural life and energy of the planet. Aged 74 and resident in Japan, Kurokawa never intended to be the on-site architect for the centre - but in between courses he produced a “napkin sketch” and agreed to help Garbers work up a design he could take forward.
Shortly afterwards, in 2007, Kurokawa died unexpectedly, but Garbers and his partner Wendy James felt they had enough to work with, and after visiting Japan to view existing Kurokawa buildings, began to produce detailed designs.
“It had to be bare concrete for the exterior,” says Garbers. “Render, for example would not have done justice to Kurokawa’s vision.”
The Swansea centre is not the first to make extensive use of concrete. Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners specified a concrete structural frame and a high-quality exposed concrete for the columns, ceilings and floors of its centre at Charing Cross hospital in west London, which won the 2009 RIBA Stirling prize. The use of concrete naturally moderated the peaks and troughs of temperature, creating a more pleasant environment for patients.
And Rogers appears to have started a trend. Koolhaas’ centre in Gartnavel, Glasgow, which opened last year, also makes full use of exposed concrete inside, as well as dramatic full-height concrete panels on the exterior. Norwegian practice Snohetta’s design for an Aberdeen centre, meanwhile, is a continuously curved concrete structure, described by Charles Jenckes as a “protective shell” embracing the interior.