Living with Maggie’s

Timothy Hyman’s year as artist in residence with the cancer charity has borne fruit as its Culture Crawl approaches

Gehry’s is a marvellous building – a small wonder-of-the-world, a joyful event-in-the-landscape.
Gehry’s is a marvellous building – a small wonder-of-the-world, a joyful event-in-the-landscape.

Those of us who are caught up in architecture most of the time – especially critics – always need a voice from outside our world to give us a bit of perspective. In my experience the best tonic-providers in this regard are fashion designers and artists. They have the necessary sharp visual awareness and creative drive, but none of the baggage that we tend to accumulate in the professional way of things – none of the preconceptions or style hang-ups about what architecture should be.

So it was fascinating to meet artist Timothy Hyman recently at the Royal Academy. The occasion was a briefing about this year’s Maggie’s Culture Crawl, the annual overnight fundraising walk for this marvellous growing network of cancer-support centres. Maggie’s and the RA kindly hosted the event for the Critics’ Circle, an informal grouping of arts journalists that has met for over a century. This year Sandy Nairne, outgoing director of the National Portrait Gallery, is curating the London Culture Crawl – which means setting the theme, organising the route and persuading cultural organisations along the way to open their doors to the walkers at dead of night. More of this in a moment. But first: why Timothy Hyman?

It’s because Hyman was commissioned by Maggie’s for a year-long artist’s residency in 2012, to record in what he describes as his ‘carnivalesque’ manner the life of the organisation. Sponsorship for this came from the Cocheme Trust. The results of this residency – meant to be one day a week, though I suspect it was more – are now on display at the RA and published in a book. Hyman was mostly based at the Stirling Prize winning Maggie’s in Hammersmith by Richard Rogers and Ivan Harbour, but he got around the Scottish group as well, visiting the Gehry example in Dundee, Zaha’s in Falkirk, OMA’s at Gartnavel, and the original by Richard Murphy in Edinburgh among others. 

Two things stand out for me from this exercise: the first is Hyman’s words accompanying the pictures, which not only describes his artistic process but also his response to the people he encountered and his own personal involvement – his twin brother having died of cancer 12 years earlier. He spares no detail, especially not of the male prostate-cancer group which he (being male) meets the most: the matters they discuss are revealing to the point of acute discomfort. The second is his response to the architecture of the various Maggie’s buildings.

He likes the London Maggie’s – for him, it is ‘a little Aesculapian temple’ though it takes him a while to find a way of drawing the complex interlocking spaces. But he finds Page and Park’s Gatehouse Maggie’s in Glasgow – a conversion – ‘more homely, and warmer’. Then it’s on to OMA’s circlet-round-a-garden at Gartnavel. ‘After the Gatehouse, it feels very “Euro” – a child of, say, the Louisiana Museum outside Copenhagen. A bit sterile? It is a very intelligent architecture and does create a flow of space.’

He has kind words for Murphy’s in Edinburgh, but reservations about Zaha’s in Falkirk (‘a little black painted pavilion which looks at first not at all prepossessing… later we’ll hear of users calling it ‘The Coffin’, or ‘The Ship of Death’, or the ‘Stealth Bomber’). Inside it’s very different, though, as he finds – ‘white and luminous with curves everywhere, a conscious shape-making in contrast to the forced angles of the exterior’.

However, there’s no doubt which is his favourite: Frank Gehry’s Maggie’s in Dundee, set on a hillside overlooking the Tay. ‘Gehry’s is a marvellous building – a small wonder-of-the-world, a joyful event-in-the-landscape.’ For him it is a vessel full of allusion and metaphor.

Tellingly, he compares his year at Maggie’s with being a war artist in that the experiences of the people he met – users and staff – affect him deeply. At one point he became ill himself with shingles, possibly brought on by stress. He concludes: ‘My year with Maggie’s has been among the most privileged experiences of my art-life and I want to dedicate these drawings to the extraordinarily courageous individuals I encountered.’

  • Albert Bridge means yu're close to a welcome at Foster + Partners.
    Albert Bridge means yu're close to a welcome at Foster + Partners.
  • Maggie's Culture Crawl venue – Sloane Statue at Chelsea Physic Gardens.
    Maggie's Culture Crawl venue – Sloane Statue at Chelsea Physic Gardens.
  • Maggie's Culture Crawl venue – The Foreign & Commonwealth Office.
    Maggie's Culture Crawl venue – The Foreign & Commonwealth Office.
  • Along the route last year, night-time dance in the Foreign Office
    Along the route last year, night-time dance in the Foreign Office
  • Part of last year's Culture Crawl, with the ubiquitous George Clarke seeing them off.
    Part of last year's Culture Crawl, with the ubiquitous George Clarke seeing them off.
  • On last year's Maggie's Culture Crawl.
    On last year's Maggie's Culture Crawl.
  • On last year's Culture Crawl apples were not only provided but formed an art installation in Fulham Palace.
    On last year's Culture Crawl apples were not only provided but formed an art installation in Fulham Palace.

And so to this year’s 15-mile Culture Crawl, which will take place in London on Friday September 18 and is organised in partnership with Open House. Described as ‘part night walk, part cultural adventure’ it includes unique night-time access to buildings including the Foreign Office, Victoria and Albert Museum, and the studio of Foster + Partners, with various performances and happenings (including food and drink) along the way. It will start at 6.30 pm near St. Paul’s Cathedral , head out west and finally loop back to end at Covent Garden. There’s a £40 registration fee and a £200 fundraising commitment. It’s popular and it’s fun and with Nairne’s theme this year of ‘people and places’ promises to be instructive too.

Sign up at www.maggiescentres.org/culturecrawllondon

‘Academicians in Focus: Timothy Hyman RA – A Year With Maggie’s’ is at the Keeper’s House, Royal Academy, London. Restricted hours, check www.royalacademy.org for details. The book ‘A Year with Maggie’s’ by Timothy Hyman is on sale at £16.95.