The Empathetic Architecture of Maggie’s Centre Barts
Maggie’s Centre Barts, a facility offering practical, social, and emotional support for people with cancer, is all about the creation of soothing spaces. Opened in London in 2017, its empathetic design is a perfect example of architecture that’s mindful of the human experience — particularly the lived experiences of those dealing with illness and their loved ones.
According to Steven Holl Architects, Maggie’s Centre was created as a “vessel within a vessel within a vessel.” More literally, it’s a three-level building dressed in a matte exterior that allows plenty of natural light in, with purposeful openings formed from concrete and bamboo helping that light flow deep into the interiors. The project also features a curved natural staircase, which receives its own dose of diffused natural light from the street and direct light through clear glass under the rooftop garden on the third floor.
This St. Bartholomew’s Hospital location is one of over 20 in the United Kingdom, all of which were designed by some of the most renowned names in architecture.
Far too many contemporary buildings are surrounded by clear glass, but Maggie’s Centre Barts is thankfully not one of them. Instead, Okalux edged glass coats the facade, giving it more of a handmade look instead of a cold, mechanical one. This aesthetic is accentuated by the addition of colorful glass fragments referring to 13th-century neume notations. “The word neume originates from the Greek pnevma, which means ‘vital force.’ It suggests a ‘breath of life’ that fills oneself with inspiration like a stream of air, the blowing of the wind,” explains the Steven Holl team on their site. By using these notations as inspiration, the facade becomes a representation of its own intentions, whereby the “breath of life” is the diffused light and those filled with “inspiration” are the patients themselves.
The center stands juxtaposed with the 18th-century masonry buildings around it, including the main building of the St. Bartholomew’s Hospital itself. This hospital is the oldest in London, dating all the way to the city’s medieval period. When a complex’s new and old buildings are separated by hundreds of years like this, a unique dialogue is born. The historic architecture connects to the contemporary architecture in terms of purpose, and the contemporary architecture in turn connects with us. The whole neighborhood then develops a timelessness that neither building could’ve achieved by itself.
The architecture of Maggie’s Centre Barts shows a deep concern for the wellness of its users, projecting the vitality of life both day and night. By its very design, the building makes a powerful and calming statement: that cancer does not have to mean the end, and that it can even be a new beginning. It’s a place of optimism where goals are set and people are inspired to focus on the good they can do.