The heated greenhouse and encircling gardens have specific therapeutic purposes, allowing visitors to work with their hands and producing fresh ingredients for the kitchen.

Shelves in the “cockpit” greenhouse were arranged to give visitors the sense of being wholly surrounded by plants.

Long views draw visitors from the central kitchen toward relaxation spaces with open fires and outdoor terraces that are sheltered from Manchester’s frequent rain.

Long views draw visitors from the central kitchen toward relaxation spaces with open fires and outdoor terraces that are sheltered from Manchester’s frequent rain.

Clear sight lines from the mezzanine office allow “passive surveillance” of all spaces by the staff.

According to Angela Daniel, a support specialist at the new drop-in center for cancer patients at Manchester’s Christie hospital, “When people come into this building for the first time, they gasp. Then their shoulders drop and they visibly relax. Quite often, they start crying and ask, ‘Is this really all for me?’ ” Designed by Foster + Partners for Maggie’s, a charity that provides practical and emotional support in purpose-built settings, the center at the Robert Parfett Building is the antithesis of the sterile, strip-lit wards in which many patients receive medical treatment. It yokes the consistent concerns of Foster’s work—for light, landscape, and the beauty of technology—to a unique program developed by the charity’s late founder, Maggie Keswick Jencks, a cancer patient and wife of architecture critic Charles Jencks. Maggie’s buildings should be domestic in scale and character, with every detail considered in terms of its emotional impact, affirming the joy of life without ignoring patients’ fears.

Foster + Partners’ design process began with visits to all 18 existing centers to discover what works best, says project architect Darron Haylock. (These include buildings by architects such as Zaha Hadid, OMA, and Frank Gehry.) The firm’s initial concept sketches, produced before a site was determined, are vague about the building’s formal or material properties but emphasize social interactions and strong visual connections between the building and a garden.

The importance of surrounding greenery led the architects to consider numerous locations before selecting one at the end of a tree-lined street, some distance from the main hospital, where the 5,000-squarefoot center sits within a verdant oasis three times its size. Positioning the building at the northern end of the plot left the largest open space on the sunny southern side, where landscape designer Dan Pearson created a lush cottage garden, mingling shaggy shrubs and ferns, bright clusters of flowers, salad plants in raised beds and espaliered fruit trees. Densely planted strips of garden extend down the building’s long east and west sides, where its low-slung roof forms a canopy over open-sided courts set into the white clapboard facades.

The entrance is on the west side, where visitors are greeted by two sitting rooms with open fireplaces and the kitchen, which is the physical and metaphorical heart of all Maggie’s Centres. Smaller consultation and activity rooms surround the courts on the east side. Separating the open-plan public areas from the cellular private spaces is a north–south spine, which houses bathrooms and study rooms. On top is a mezzanine office, from which staff members overlook all areas.

This spine is flanked by two rows of treelike wood columns that carry the roof. Each sprouts a long beam, which angles downward to the eaves, and two shorter arms angled upward to form a ridge over the mezzanine, framing operable triangular skylights.

To the south, the avenue of structural “trees” extends beyond the envelope, and the building dissolves into the landscape by degrees. A conservatory leads onto a veranda sheltered by an oversailing roof, which merges into a pergola that will be cloaked by climbing plants. At its tip, the roof extends over a wood-framed greenhouse stocked with exotic flora.

This faceted greenhouse is known as the “cockpit,” as if to confirm the aviation influence suggested by the form of the building’s plan (Foster is himself a pilot) and by its distinctive wood trusses and columns, with their filigree lattice of curved chords partly inspired by geodesic airframes of the 1930s. There is “beauty and joy in technology at its pinnacle,” says Foster, and the lattice beams advance the art of timber construction. Each was milled as a single piece from laminated veneer lumber. Columns and beams are joined by gravity connections. “It had to be more refined than a typical public building,” says Haylock: “an essay in timber, without visible metal plates.”

The structure has both the cozy familiarity of a garden trellis and the rational elegance of Gothic tracery. Its quiet sophistication is matched by the close attention to detail that touches every experience of the building, starting at the entrance, where the challenge was to draw in nervous visitors. Large windows and operable ventilation panels give views in, and the sheltered front door is left ajar. Inside, instead of a formal reception area, arrivals pass the open kitchen, where staff greet them.

Interior design reflects the principle that the building should be “homey but not like home,” says Haylock. “It’s comfortable and familiar but also demands respect—like having coffee in your best friend’s mother’s kitchen.” Corridors were eliminated from the design, along with the paraphernalia of medical environments such as signage. Clay-tile floors and sheepskin rugs add warmth and texture. Acoustic soffits dampen reverberations, so quiet conversations remain private.

Much of the furniture was designed by Foster + Partners and has a midcentury Scandinavian style that chimes with the architecture. Seat heights are tuned to the length of time visitors might spend in a particular space. In the “cockpit,” a heavy dining table is set on steel tracks so one person can push it outside in fine weather—one of many small anticipatory gestures that communicate care for the user.

Up to 150 patients visit each day, to take a class, research treatment, or pass the time in sympathetic company. Such informal interactions “might look like we’re just having a chat,” says Daniel, but they disclose important information about a patient’s mobility or mood. She cites a young man who sat at the kitchen counter and asked, “Now that I’m dying, what must I think about?” His question might not have been voiced in a medical setting but could be raised in this calm, intimate environment. “That’s what this building does,” says Daniel. “It helps us do our job.”

Foster + Partners — Norman Foster, principal; Darron Haylock, project architect; David Nelson, Spencer de Grey, Stefan Behling, Diego Alejandro Teixeira Seisedos, Xavier De Kestelier, Mike Holland, Richard Maddock, Daniel Piker, Elisa Honkanen, design team

Planning Advisor: IBI Taylor Young                                                                            

Timber Main Supporting Structure – Spruce, Ketro Q and Ketro S (Treatment: Impralan UV blocking T300 (inside), T4000 (outside)): Blumer Lehmann AG

Timber construction as external wall (SWP 27mm), Timber beam (60x120mm), Insulation Kingspan (120mm), Water Vapour Barrier, OSB 15mm: Blumer Lehmann AG

Frame: AA100 SSG (Structural Silicon Glazed) curtain walling with integrated opening vents, AA100 triangular sloped vents, RAL 7044: Bennett Architectural Aluminium Ltd

Bespoke Raynaers Hi-Finity doors fixed to Kawneer AA100 curtain walling Kawneer 720 bonded glass doors: Bennett Architectural Aluminium Ltd

Bespoke Reynaers, Hi-Finity sliding doors fixed to Kawneer AA100 curtain walling, Kawneer 720 bonded glass doors: Bennett Architectural Aluminium Ltd

Bathroom cladding – IPS panel, MDF panel with oak veneer coated in white Osmo oil: Gariff Construction

Kisaragi armchair (compressed quesrter-sawn, Japanese cedar, Kvadrat, Hallingdal 35 980): Hida Sangyo Co. Ltd

Plywod 25mm – Finish: Beech veneer – Upholstery: Kvadrat 4 – Messenger by Maharam (Colour 0048): Gariff Construction

Flush Plate – Tecesquare, dual-flushing push plate (Satin brushed stainless stell – 240 x 170 x 2mm): Tece

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