Dow Jones Architects has added another welcoming, comforting space to the Maggie’s pantheon with its timber-rich centre in Cardiff
Designing for a car park spells the birth of many of the Maggie’s cancer caring centres. Most hospitals are still accretions of extensions and additions, corridors and walkways. Velindre Cancer Centre, in Whitchurch, Cardiff, is no exception and in its parking lot Dow Jones has created a strong form that holds its own in this unpromising nowhere place, Maggie's Cardiff. More importantly when you are inside you are in a completely different world.
Maggie’s centres are places for those with cancer, or affected by it, to drop in and have a cup of tea, talk to those who understand about cancer, go to a class or meet for some therapy. They are places were there is time for questions and a soothing beauty and, hopefully, a sense of home. The RIBA Journal has covered many of them, since Maggie Keswick Jencks was involved in setting up the first one when she herself had cancer, through commissions of architectural stars such as Frank Gehry and Rem Koolhaas, pulled in by her writer husband Charles Jencks.
Dow Jones has been working on a Maggie’s for Whitchurch since 2011, initially next door on a site where the whole hospital was due to be rebuilt. Delays and a potential new site for the hospital, plus money from the Welsh government for this Maggie’s, meant it has gone ahead with an immediate solution on an unpromising triangular site, which might eventually change. This is not strictly a temporary building but its budget reflected a more limited life span and it is smaller than many Maggie’s (250m2 compared to 350m2 elsewhere).
Sandwiched between the car park and the angled brick pavilions of the derelict Whitchurch psychiatric hospital, the centre borrows the neighbouring tree line as a green background to soften the impact of the ranks of cars. The peaks and troughs of the roof give the building character – inside and out – and make it less of a visual barrier. Down Jones’ reference was the hills of the Brecon Beacons. Its domestic scale denies the weathering steel an industrial reading, but it has a strong presence, its material and sculptural quality emphasised by bollards designed by Anthony Gormley.
Step through the portal into a small, protected, courtyard and you are immediately in a different world. Beyond the tree climbing through to the sky you see into the cross laminated timber interior and lofty landscape of pitched soffits marked out with timber beams. Once inside, as with other Maggie’s, the familiar process of tea making takes centre stage with kitchen unit and table. But your gaze is drawn out to the trees at the back of the building, under the canopy of the extruded roof scape. Other spaces flow from the centre, a yoga studio/activity room with double doors, rooms for therapy or private discussion, a small office. All that is not visible are two more intimate spaces.
One is made by the other. A tall, chimney-like volume rises up through the tea room to the roof. Step through the gently draped Welsh curtain and you are enclosed in timber cwtch (Welsh for cuddle or cubbyhole), the light coming down from high in the roof above. The wide bench doubles as a space to lie down. It is like being inside a huge chimney breast – and was inspired by a 16th century Welsh farm house. It forms the other hidden space, at the end of the building; two chairs gathered in conversation in front of a stove and its tiled back drop.
The pressures of build and budget are visible where roof angles and wall meet, in quite ordinary toilets, in a cupboard where the shelves function rather than delight – things barely noticeable in buildings less special than this. The biggest pressure has been on space. The building is hard up against car park, roads and Velindre’s mortuary and at the back only barely steals space for a narrow outside terrace.
Dow Jones has made the most of the limitations, giving a sense of depth with deep window mullions, door frames and skirting boards. As with other Maggie’s centres the textiles and crockery, the domestic elements of the space, are very important. Mug and plates by Lisa Krigel look like rough Bernard-Leach-style pottery but are smooth to the touch while the Welsh blankets, with their reversible weave, are used for cushions and curtains too. These give the space a more, familiar, personal sense of someone making the space friendly. Outside, generous rainwater spouts shoot away from the building; delicate drain covers accept the wet.
These small things matter as much as the big moves. It is only when you step away and into the hospital again that you realise the relief the building itself brings.
Architect Dow Jones Architects
Structural engineer Momentum
M&E consultant MOTT MACDONALD
Quantity surveyor RPA Cardiff
CDM coordinator CDM Scotland
Approved building inspector Buttler and Young
Main contractor Knox and Wells
CAD software used Vectorworks