Maggie’s Barts by Steven Holl Architects
Words Cate St Hill
Siting a clean, contemporary, translucent glass building on the grounds of the oldest hospital in Britain — founded in 1123 — was bound to come up against some resistance. Cancer care charity Maggie’s first revealed plans for its second London centre in 2012 — replacing a mediocre brick building from the Sixties, set within the warren of historic edifices that make up St Bartholomew’s Hospital in the City of London’s Smithfield, with a bold design wrapped in coloured glass by American architect Steven Holl. Tacked on to the end of an 18th-century Bath stone building by James Gibbs, campaigners claimed the scheme threatened the Grade I-listed Great Hall and a series of Hogarth murals next door, going so far as to draw up a rival plan by British architect Michael Hopkins that went on to gain planning in 2014.
Steadfast in its conviction that it needed a powerful, uplifting design for its cancer patients, Maggie’s pushed forward with Holl’s controversial £7.5m scheme. After being first rejected in 2013, plans were finally approved in 2015 — winning permission by just one vote. ‘It would have been really easy to have been safe but I think when you’re dealing with cancer you have to be brave. People with cancer don’t deserve second-rate pastiche, we had to go beyond Gibbs,’ said Laura Lee, CEO of Maggie’s, at the building’s opening in December.
The outer layer of matte-white polychrome insulating glass, developed specially for the project with German glass manufacturer Okalux, is decorated with colourful interpretations of medieval neumes
Holl’s building, created in partnership with jmarchitects, now joins 21 other Maggie’s Centres across the UK and abroad, offering a tranquil sanctuary for people living with cancer and their families — an alternative to the impersonal corridors, humdrum interiors and noxious therapy that defines the large, austere NHS hospitals at which they’re sited. The first opened in Edinburgh in 1996. Each is designed by a different architect, from Zaha Hadid and Norman Foster to Frank Gehry and Rem Koolhaas, but all are conceived as warm, welcoming spaces, where patients can receive emotional support and practical advice, take part in relaxation workshops and attend art therapy classes, or simply gather around the kitchen table for a decent cup of tea.
As 2017, marking the charity’s 21st anniversary, drew to a close, Steven Holl stood in the warm, bamboo-lined atrium of the new Maggie’s Barts and looked up at the finished result, not much different to the initial rough pencil sketches that caused such a stir five years ago. ‘It’s been a long project but it’s one of my favourite works we’ve ever done because of all its problems and intensity. Charles [Jencks — the co-founder of Maggie’s] said there’s not been so much controversy over a piece of architecture since No. 1 Poultry,’ mused Holl, whose only other project in the UK also dealt with a historic setting adjacent to Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Glasgow School of Art in Scotland. ‘My argument is that we have to have new architecture; it’s optimistic of the future — the next generation has to feel that it’s an open language, that architecture can be inspired by anything.’
Internal views of the Maggie’s Barts London showing cosy seating clusters
Where other Maggie’s Centres have had large, open sites to sprawl across, Holl’s three-storey block squeezes itself into a narrow plot at the corner of Barts’ central courtyard. It is conceived, in Holl’s words, as ‘a thing within a thing within a thing’ — a concrete frame sandwiched between an inner layer of bamboo and an outer layer of matte-white glass. Looking back to the very early beginnings of the hospital in the 12th century, Holl was inspired by a medieval form of music notation called neume, reinterpreting staff lines and shaping notes on to the facade as horizontal bands and coloured glass lenses that at first appear somewhat like crude, child-like flags in primary colours. ‘I believe drawing is a form of thought, and that music is a vital force,’ explains Holl, ‘and this building unites these two in a small manifesto about my belief of what architecture can be. The word neume is derived from Greek and it means breath of life; that is when I thought, a-ha, that is what I want to connect to.’
Internal views of the Maggie’s Barts London, showing a curved staircase in bamboo
The polychrome insulating glass was developed specially for the project with glass manufacturer Okalux in Germany. During the day the stained-glass effect is subtle, the facade more closely resembling the cream colour of the hospital’s stone buildings, while at night the bright pops of colour become more perceptible from the outside, allowing the building to glow like an ‘inviting lantern’. It has a joyful, uplifting presence set among its more conservative surroundings, if having something of the appearance of a paediatrician’s department about it.
Inside, a curved, bamboo-lined staircase wraps around the atrium, hugging the exposed concrete frame as if a hole has been chiselled away and carved out of the centre of the building.
There are two entrances either end of the building, and where there might ordinarily be a reception desk is instead an open-plan kitchen and communal table at the centre, bordered by cosy seating nooks tucked into the form of the stairs. On the walls, round lights are milled into solid bamboo, while further up a writing desk follows the first-floor landing. Even with furniture and art yet to be installed, the effect is warm and cocooning, the translucent glass and lack of visibility outside making the building feel private and protected.
Internal views of the Maggie’s Barts London, showing a rooftop space and garden
Continuing the journey upstairs, past rooms for consultations and meetings, the building finishes with a light-filled rooftop space and garden that provides one of the first glimpses of its outside surroundings since the entrance. The room curves to embrace the view of a large tree opposite and Smithfield Market beyond, and will be used for yoga and tai chi. Possibly one of the most intriguing moments of the building, though, is hidden away from view. In order to settle a legal challenge after it won planning permission, Holl’s bamboo interior was pushed back 1m or so to allow space for a utilitarian, back-of-house staircase and set of basement toilets between the Maggie’s and adjacent Grand Hall, for use by both.
Previously the old building covered the end facade of Gibbs’ building, but now the original stone quoins are revealed as a palimpsest, perhaps best viewed through the glass of the lift as it makes its way up through the floors. When you’re in Holl’s building you almost forget where you are, this small gesture provides a fleeting reminder of its history.
All photographs by Iwan Baan