Heatherwicks Studio

Maggie's Inside Out

Nature and craft combined reworks Maggie's Leeds cancer care centre. For Thomas Heatherwick's first timber foray, the studio has folded its new-found material interest into a full blown woodland- scape meets maker and craft agenda.

Right from their earliest days, the heart of Maggie’s’ Cancer Care has been about a sensibility, in buildings, in atmospheres, and in human interaction, creating the welcoming warmth of home and hearth. Yet, this connection to the felt world didn’t extend in meaningful ways into the outdoors world of nature.

Maggies Leeds entrance
– Photo (and right) Oliver Lowenstein

Sure, potted plants are always reassuringly in evidence. And already in 2005, Charles Jencks inserted one of his speculative garden designs outside Maggie’s Inverness. One of the most recent centres, Maggie’s Oldham, is organised around an undercroft garden, complete with symbolic birch tree steepling through its glass-encased first floor void. But nature actually crossing the threshold into the body of a building’s interior has been a design path not taken. The realm of green walls and roofs, and the fusion - and confusion - of inside with out, and outside within, hasn’t to date been part of the Maggie’s approach. Nature is outdoors, and Culture – in the form of human health and medicine – inside.

The completion of the latest 25th Maggie’s suggests this is changing. This isn’t too surprising, given Maggie’s Leeds is designed by Thomas Heatherwick Studio. What’s unclear is if this step is a one-off or a possible harbinger for Maggie’s to come. The vegetal world has been a long-time Heatherwick go-to studio signature, reflected in projects as diverse as the ill-fated Thames Garden Bridge, Bombay Sapphire’s retro-futurist Hampshire distillery glasshouses; and the planned ‘planted pergola’ structure in Tokyo, and 1000 Trees in Shanghai, which are both office and retail complexes. But not all of Heatherwick’s projects foreground nature the way Maggie’s Leeds does so significantly - from its main entrance, the building momentarily appears almost to merge with the budding world of plant, flower and tree life.

Birds eye view of St James University Hospital, Leeds
– Photo NHS/Leeds TH-NHS
St James Hospital, Leeds, with the Maggies site in the
foreground, the Bexley Wing upper left, and the car
park on the right– Photo Heatherwicks Studio

This is all the more graphic given the scale of the St. James University Hospital site that Maggie’s Leeds sits in front of. Heatherwick’s building is dwarfed by the 50 metre tall Bexley Wing cancer centre. A New Labour-era PFI hospital programme, the huge Bexley Wing (a press release boast that it is 12 football pitches long) was completed in 2008 and designed by Anshen & Allen Architects (since subsumed into Stantec): it towers in the background right behind another tall structure, the hospital’s multi-storey car park. Like so many of their buildings, Maggie’s Leeds appears tiny and delicate in comparison to the surrounding build-scape.

St James’s University Hospital is one of the largest teaching hospitals in the country. The hospital’s buildings extend over a sizeable footprint of land, a series of large multi-storey buildings receding along a hillside crest contour, the Bexley Wing near the campus forefront. The wing is the specialist cancer centre for the region, covering all of Yorkshire, Hull and the Humber. This begs a second though related issue, how the arrival of a Maggie’s on a hospital site invariably highlights the distance between the humane ‘small is beautiful’ sensibility and the industrial hospital factory scale that the NHS operates at. In this context Maggie’s Leeds appears like a small glass and grass jewel, poised carefully in front of the main St James’s Hospital complex.

The Maggie’s Centres are an argument for human scale in health and architecture. “How can you make the most human benefit, make the building do the most?” asks the project architect, Peruvian Angel Tenorio, rhetorically, when I visited during the brief 2020 summer break from Covid restrictions. If the Maggie’s buildings generally posit this question, Maggie’s Leeds begs the nature question of the Maggie’s network. Now that this building is here, will Maggie’s projects expand further into the sort of vegetal spectacle the Heatherwick Studio have made their own, and perhaps further, highlighting the potential health benefits of vertical gardens, green roofscapes and urban rooftop farms? And it leads to questions about Heatherwick’s: will the studio pivot to creating nature-infused landscaping complemented by natural - rather than fossil fuel based - building materials? The answer may be with Heatherwick himself, who, Tenorio continues, was “very, very involved and invested” in the project since its inception, from concept through to detailing, designing the door handles for instance. “Maggie’s building’s were always on the practices radar.” Not surprisingly perhaps. “He feels it is very special.”

Photo: BalstonAguis

For most architects invited to participate in a Maggie’s project, the extent to which nature gets to play a role has been limited, and consistently expressed by their material choice, timber. That, really, is it. From Frank Gehry through to Norman Foster and - soon - Daniel Libeskind, timber has been the default, and as far as these elder generation architects have been prepared to go, when it comes to the health message inscribed in materials choice. Now Heatherwick’s have joined this architectural roll-call. Composed of three timber cassettes or pods, the first Heatherwick’s timber project is imbued with a crafted aesthetic, while sitting within its moptop roof garden cum micro-forest. There’s another surprise to this, though. Originally, the design didn’t necessarily call for timber.

The sloping site has resulted in a multi-level design, unfolding on the falling ridge, with 7.5m height difference between lowest and highest point. The front of the Hospital campus negotiates this hill, even if the scale of the buildings masks its impact on the design. The seemingly miniature Maggie’s building adapts to the sloping terrain, its four floors backing into and moving up the hillside.

Heatherwicks Studio

Organised around three pod-based spaces - down from an initial seven - each at different levels, the pods are critical for the structural support, with two cores, one containing a lift, along with two of the counselling rooms wrapped around the rim of the pods. Step inside, and the pods are populated with a Heatherwick version of the Maggie’s template, the psychic welcoming space and arrival in homely kitchen and hearth-like atmospherics.

A pronounced organic feel and look, underlined by the internal curved glulam fins (indeed almost fin fountains) pervades the building, at one with the quiet crafted, even ‘beige’ sensibility, in the furniture, the cooking implements, and a display of baskets sitting on recessed wall-bay shelves. The fins are in a knocked-back washed tone too, which is also reflected in other surfaces, the brown concrete aggregate floors, lime-rendered walls and furnishings.

Early design in concrete
- Heatherwicks Studio

The surprise that timber wasn’t originally part of the plan underlines just how late Heatherwick’s have been in taking up the material. The team initially began, back in 2013, with different structural systems in mind, including, according to Nick Ling, a ”concrete and brick design, and all sorts of glass”, along with steel, plasters, and timber – in mind. This changed after AKT’s - the project’s structural engineers - site analysis demonstrated how expensive groundworks on contaminated land would be, pointing to the advantages of a light structure, either steel or timber.  The structural survey informed the decision to use timber, which then flowed into the designing of a comforting, warm environment. Given that Heatherwick’s studio had long highlighted the expressive potential of materiality, one might have thought timber would have been part of the long-term palette. But no.

Once the decision was made, Heatherwick’s embarked on finding a specialist contractor. The search appears to have led to a learning experience on the part of the architects regarding the UK’s capacity to deliver timber for this sort of project. Initially Ling, Tonario and others had assumed – it feels somewhat naïvely – that local UK suppliers could cope with the semi-free form cassette design, but as they kicked off discussions with Constructional Timber, working out of Barnsley, a mere 20 miles south of Leeds, and Cowley Timber, somewhat further in distance but still relatively close, there was a dawning realisation that UK companies wouldn’t meet what they were looking for. Ling says “We were disappointed in the UK fabrication… the geometric capability was a bit limited, the designing of the form, the in-house engineers didn’t give off confidence.”

Models and illustration of the pod based design – Heatherwicks Studio

Looking further afield they undertook a tour of potential big European contractors, Wiehag, Zublin Timber, B&K Structures, Hess, and Blumer-Lehmann. From these seven, the number was whittled down to a much shorter list: Wiehag, Zublin and Blumer-Lehmann. The companies’ responses to the challenge of the cassette-pod design often felt like “the cheapest’ option, with hybrid cassettes with the fins sticking out from underneath.”

For Ling, it was clear why Blumer-Lehmann were appointed. “Blumer-Lehmann were the only one who saw a solution that could work. They brought a lot of intelligence to the timber engineering and seemed to know what we were trying to achieve.” Working within the contracted team, Blumer-Lehmann’s engineering helped to resolve various detailing and design challenges, including modelling to optimise the structural loads the glulam columns are carrying.

The pods under construction – Blumer Lehmann

The glulam fins circle the pods, organised in a star shape, structurally supported by 27 Baubuche columns. None of the 120 glulam elements connect to the walls at the same angle, requiring Blumer-Lehmann to individually mitre each fin. Before leaving for Leeds, they also prefabricated the pods’ external glulam walls, comprising 24 rounded sections of 240 glulam elements, integrated with the fins into cassettes. The Swiss factory also dealt with the Baubuche support columns which run around the building’s interior edge, both integrated within the window walls and as standalone columns. Up to 7m in height, and 220mm in diameter, each is painted with a white pigmented oil echoing the knocked- back tones of the various materials’ colour language. In all there is 227m3 of softwood and 5.33 of hardwood (plus a further 17m3 OSB and 3m x 3m of multilayer board). The glulam went up “very quickly” according to Tonario, which he and Ling hadn’t quite anticipated until it was happening. According to a Blumer-Lehmann statistic provided to Tonario, the building’s timber represents 329.3 tonnes of captured CO2, including the glulam sourced from spruce stands from within one hundred miles of the Swiss factory.

Heatherwicks Studio

As Ling notes that once the studio team had decided on timber, the material’s health credentials, its warmth and softness, along with its sustainability soon became more convincing. And by the time the project was being 4repared for handover to the Maggie’s Leeds team – autumn 2019 - the world was rather different, with a Swedish teenager, a TV nonagenarian natural world national treasure, and a survivalist uprising having conspired to return environmental issues back into headline consciousness. It was timely that Heatherwick’s were unveiling their first timber building, having recently signed up to the Architects Declare initiative, while looking at how the natural material could be more mainstreamed into their projects’ caseload. It was also ironic, given this is the studio who wanted to throw a bridge covered with gardens and woodlands over the River Thames, was only now beginning to look at how their buildings and structures could be made from the natural world they often foreground.  Although Heatherwick’s have long been toiling over cross-laminated timber (CLT) detailing for Google’s London headquarters, this, their first completed building, must be a persuasive case study for how the studio can integrate timber more fully as complement to their craft, maker and vegetal nature profile.

From above - one of Heatherwicks Studio's cork tables
– Photo Oliver Lowenstein

The crafted element is a small story itself, not surprising for a studio which has built a reputation out of shape-shifting between architecture, design and craft. Heatherwick’s own contribution is two irregular hexagonal tables, made from glulam offcuts with the table-tops cantilevering out much like the building’s fins in miniature. Decked out with cork surfaces and sitting in the ground and first floors, they’re complemented by the cutlery and crockery chosen by the team. This first-hand involvement reflects the studio ethos, says Tonario. “Thomas wants all of us to be very involved in the making stage of the design.”

Fango's double curved vase – Photo Fango

Almost more interesting though, as well as timely in these Peak-Maker days, is the work of the other crafts people and artisans, highlighted in the large ceramic planter vessels, the wall baskets holding further greenery, and the lazure wall painting in the counselling rooms. The planters for the larger plants have been specially designed by a young Italian ceramicist, Angela Nodari, a trained architect, who like a quite a few of her fellow practitioners, has moved sideways into ceramics and set up a one-woman studio, Fango. The four large double-curved vases are finished with volcanic sand brushed glazing, resulting in earthy tones to reflect the centre’s interiors colour fields.

There are also the beautiful baskets sitting in the wall alcoves holding plants and acting as a default exhibition. Made by Kelabit communities in the Karayan Highlands of Borneo, these Kalang baskets arrived in Leeds through a long circuitous route.  First receiving exposure through the Pesta Nukenen Cultural Project, the Kalang baskets have gradually become known about in the West. In 2011 they were featured in the University of East Anglia’s Sainsbury Centre 2011 Making Human Nature basketry exhibition. More recently, Jason Gathorne-Hardy, an artist and founder of the Alde Valley Spring Festival who grew up in Malaysia, nurtured a connection between the Suffolk festival and the Nukenen project, arranging for the baskets to be shown at the 2019 Festival. It was there that they were picked up on by the Heatherwick’s team.

Up close and basketlike: the Kalang baskets on the wall alcoves – Photo Oliver Lowenstein (also below)

There is also the craft and artistry of lazure painting in the four counselling rooms at Maggie’s Leeds. The larger of the rooms, with high ceiling, is in lilac, the smaller one-on-one therapy room in peach blossom. Restraint and an ethereal sensibility fill the air, lighter on the upper floor before growing stronger and deeper on descending to the ground floor. The colours hold the walls, and you suspect, those in midst of vast existential crisis as well. The lazure painting was by a specialist painter, Lazure artist Gary Chippendale, given the brief of drawing out the special character of each of the rooms. Lazure painting involves applying layers of colour on white walls, enabling says Lazurist Charles Andrade, “light to pass through and reflect back giving a pure colour experience that can have a powerful healing influence…offering a calming or dynamic movement of colour on the walls that changes tones throughout the day.” Chippendale found he required three or four glazes to draw out movement and depth, applying the colours so that the transitions felt seamless in each of the rooms.

The Lazure painted wall therapy rooms
– Heatherwicks Studio (and above)

Lazure painting is esoteric in source: it was Rudolf Steiner, the Austrian mystic and educator, who developed ‘lazuring’, which aimed, he indicated, to bring out the ‘most luminous quality of colour.’ This might seem odd in the context of the Maggie’s Centres, not known for their engagement with Steiner and his Anthroposophical philosophy, until and unless one knows that Thomas Heatherwick went to a Steiner school (full disclosure – so did I, the same one). With this knowledge, commissioning lazure painting, not to mention Heatherwick’s distinctly organicist design aesthetic, plus a similar distinct craft leaning, makes complete sense. Indeed, it is tempting to imagine that Heatherwick wanted to quietly broker a meeting space between the Maggie’s world and that of Steiner’s spiritual design and architectural work. One wonders what both the Leeds Maggie’s team, and its design board have made of their first lazure rooms, and whether they’ll be the last.

It also begs an obvious next question; how much further does Steiner’s influence on Heatherwick’s design language with Maggie’s Leeds extend? Again, it makes absolute sense of the nature explosion that has been carefully integrated into and onto the building. It makes sense of how plants – fig trees in the vast vessels create a first step of flow from inside out into the landscaping and the vegetal is begun. “A lot of care was taken on the planting,” says Teronio, noting their psychological and health benefits. There are apparently 17,000 plants in all, and all native species in part to reflect a local British woodland, selected by Marie-Louise Agius at Balston Agius landscape architects.

Real and imaginary landscaping – Photo and drawing BalstonAgius Landscape Architects

Agius’s choices reflect the brief for locally sourced species. The lower canopy comprises bird cherry, rowan, hazel, and holl, while at ground level Aguis has selected with all year round plant life in mind: ivy, butcher’s broom, great woodrush, wood sedge, stinking iris and ferns. Through these are spring bulbs and perennials, with the evergreens planted to support the trees and shrubs and to provide a degree of screening privacy. Outside, North Yorkshire oak, birch and Scots Pine, inside beech, and spruce from Northern Switzerland. It makes sense.

The centre opened in November 2019, with a plan to build up capacity through the winter months into February and early March 2020, until Coronavirus brought things to an untimely halt. The doors reopened in May 2020, and although the centre was seeing a gradual return of patients when I visited in early September, the Coronavirus situation has since meant numbers plummeted. For those who’ve experienced the building, it’s often been a powerful experience. Whilst I wandered around the floors, I overheard an elderly couple sitting at one of the Heatherwick tables, noticeably moved by being in the building.

Photo - BalstonAgius Landscape Architects

The Maggie’s Leeds team leader, Amanda Procter, noted the curiosity and the sense of relaxation in those who stepped over the threshold. “People can come in and take a breath – a lot of people walk in to look. NHS staff also come in and have break-out sessions, or just to have a break.” Run by a six-person team, including a psychologist, and two with fund-raising responsibilities, for the Maggie’s team, the thrill and excitement had begun subsiding, though Procter and her colleagues seemed – unsurprisingly - to genuinely like their workplace. There is a small library and workstation immediately after the entrance, but little private admin or downtime space.  The open plan set up and lack of a dedicated office, Procter says, “took quite a bit getting used to.” They are making the best of this missing ingredient, hot desking around the four floors, and the library and workstation area next to the front doors.

It was there by the computers that I happened to notice a small poster. It was about the new children’s hospital, a strapline reading, “a vision of a new Children’s hospital, hospital in the heart of Leeds, hospitals of the future.” My mind cast back to the previous visit when the hospital building programme was still alive. The Maggie’s Centres had been a bright new hope in those days; the hope being that some of their sensitivity, their design intelligence, and their homeliness would jump tracks into the NHS programme. But somehow lost in translation, such a move didn’t happen. Today, with a new round of hospital builds again in the works what chance is there for some elements of the Maggie’s blueprint to make it into programme? A children’s hospital seemed like a good place to begin.

It was those kinds of thoughts that were buzzing in my head as after the visit I navigated my way through the giant health factory next door. And what a radical step Heatherwick’s had realised with their nature-infused building, fusing and confusing inside for out, outside for in. The conjured marriage of the made and the grown was beautifully beguiling. Today Maggie’s Leeds, tomorrow a whole ten storey hospital building. Why not? There are simpler starting points as well, not least the use of timber, deployed in Leeds as a complementary backdrop, yet with so many possibilities in the health context. There’s also the impact of coronavirus, with our lockdown lives spurring a profound reawakening in so many to the presence of nature – towards what political journalist Isabel Hardmann has called the other NHS, the Natural Health Service. As such, it is impossible not to imagine - and hope - that such biophilic moves are now being integrated much more fully into Maggie’s design thinking and policy as it plans the next round of buildings. And if only a small part of this were to happen, Heatherwick’s Leeds project could prove a turning point in the Maggie’s Centres story.

Heatherwicks Studio