With its oldest wing dating back to 1848, Yorkshire’s St. James’s University Hospital became a major English medical hub in the 20th century and then a globally renowned oncology centre in the 21st. Along the way, it was expanded with progressively more advanced additions, culminating in the opening of a marquee oncology wing in 2008. Against this imposing institutional scale, the hospital’s latest addition might almost be mistaken for a public art installation or a whimsical woodland garden.
Vibrant and artful, Maggie’s Centre Leeds is no ornament. Designed by Heatherwick Studio, the modestly scaled building – which reads as a trio of oversized planters – is the latest in the charity’s global roster of architecturally expressive cancer respite centres. Joining the 25 existing Maggie’s Centres throughout the UK, the Yorkshire facility harnesses architecture as a locus of wellness and healing.
Anchored by a vibrant landscape designed by Balston Agius, the centre is embraced by greenery, including native plantings inspired by the Yorkshire forests that surround it. Featuring a mix of evergreen and deciduous trees, the garden is designed to remain animated during the winter months. Elegantly untamed gardens also lushly carpet the staggered mushroom-cap rooftops of the contoured building – comprised of light volumes of glass and wood – which seems as if it were designed to deferentially emerge from behind the rich foliage.
The connection to nature is vital to the overall experience. Exposure to greenery is shown to improve mental and physical wellbeing and, thus, the gardens are integrated into the building’s program. Visitors are also encouraged to spend time outdoors and actively participate in the care of the approximately 23,000 bulbs and 17,000 plants.
The living landscape is complemented by organic, sinuous interiors. Each of the three volumes rests on a base of blonde spruce timber; prefabricated frames stretch from floor to ceiling in an expressive radial pattern to support the rooftop gardens.
Each volume also encloses a private counselling room at its centre, and arrays sunlit communal spaces along the garden-facing glass facade. At the heart of the trio, a communal kitchen serves as the centre’s social hub, while the adjoining library and exercise room offer a range of recreational amenities. Accented with planters and vines, the building’s understated decor creates a link between the gardens and the interiors.
The form and orientation of the building were also carefully mediated to support natural ventilation throughout, while the use of naturally porous materials such as lime plaster helps to maintain comfortable internal humidity levels.
“By only using natural, sustainable materials and immersing the building in thousands of plants, there was a chance for us to make an extraordinary environment capable of inspiring visitors with hope and perseverance during their difficult health journeys,” says Heatherwick Studio founder Thomas Heatherwick. “Maggie’s Leeds has been a very special project for me and my team because we are convinced that there are kinder, more empathic ways to design places that can have powerful impacts on the way that we feel.”
The deft interplay of greenery, curved timber and ample natural light fosters a soothing – and impressively cohesive – ambiance indoors and out. Taking cues from the building’s own curved ceilings, Heatherwick Studio also designed a pair of custom communal tables for the kitchen, underlining a sense of aesthetic unity.
But Maggie’s Centre is no museum. The ample shelves and windowsills also invite visitors to fill the space with their own objects and mementoes, fostering – however lightly – a sense of home at the heart of a sprawling hospital complex.
At the heart of a sprawling Yorkshire medical complex, the cancer care centre introduces a vital dose of calm – and greenery.