An exhibit documents top architects redefining spaces for health care | Features | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

An exhibit documents top architects redefining spaces for health care

Maggie's Centres are explicitly critical of the bloated technocratic atmosphere of contemporary medicine

Vitruvius, the ancient Roman architect and treatise-writer, said one of the most lasting motifs of classical architecture was inspired by an offering at a maiden's grave. A mourner left votive objects in a basket covered with a flat tile. Soon, an acanthus plant grew from beneath, with leaves enveloping the basket. At least in legend, it inspired the Greek architect Callimachus to create the first Corinthian capital.

The theme of architecture promising memory, even life, after the premature death of a young woman is compelling. Surely this is part of why the buildings presented in the Carnegie Museum of Art exhibit Maggie's Centres: A Blueprint for Cancer Care engage the viewer so assuredly.

Maggie's Centres are a network of currently 16 small buildings — most in Britain, one in Hong Kong — commissioned to provide spaces for "free practical, emotional and social support" for cancer sufferers and their families during times of treatment. Maggie Keswick Jencks, for whom Maggie's Centres are named, was a distinguished landscape designer and historian. She died of breast cancer in 1995 at age 53, but not before leveling a critique of current medical architecture as experienced through cancer treatment.

click to enlarge Frank Gehry's Maggie's Dundee
Photo courtesy of Raf Makda
Sufficiently quaint, quintessentially Gehry-esque: Frank Gehry's Maggie's Dundee

"Overhead (sometimes even neon) lighting, interior spaces with no views out and miserable seating against the walls all contribute to extreme mental and physical enervation," she wrote.

She began the project for the homey and comforting drop-in centers as a response. Located on the grounds of major hospitals, they are owned and operated independently. They are also explicitly critical of the bloated technocratic atmosphere of contemporary medicine and its architecture.

She envisioned and oversaw the first one, in Edinburgh, by architect Richard Murphy, but did not live to see it completed.

Her widower, Charles Jencks, has continued the project. He is among the most influential architectural theorists and historians of the past several decades, known particularly for his work defining postmodern architecture and creating vivid timeline diagrams of changing aesthetic styles in the field. Notably, the Jenckses met at London's prestigious Architectural Association in 1978, when a particularly remarkable generation of architects, including Zaha Hadid, Rem Koolhaas and Steven Holl, was studying or beginning teaching careers there. These architects, also including Piers Gough, Richard Rogers and Frank Gehry, have works in this Heinz Architectural Center show.

There is a frequent expectation, exemplified by the pejorative "starchitect" label and not always false, that famous architects are prima donna artistes who care only about the oddball aesthetics of their works, and that issues of humanity and comfort, utility and durability fall by the wayside. Yet Maggie's Centres — as represented in this exhibit's photos, drawings and models, with cozy furniture to emphasize the feeling of physical comfort — work to disprove this negative stereotype, to counter with an assertion that the world's best architects can produce work that palpably improves the human condition.

One of the best is the Rogers Stirk Harbour (Richard Rogers) version in London. Tucked in a heavily trafficked neighborhood, it is enclosed by a rectangular, but not sealed, salmon-colored wall that gives the sense of an abstracted Roman villa. The building is designed on a surprisingly straightforward grid that allows a breezy and domestic floor plan, enhanced by balconies and overlooks, to be open so that its functions are permeable. The roof is a flattened truss, perforated with diamond-shaped openings, that further modulates architectural experience by covering a different area than the walls enclose. The building received the Royal Institute of British Architects' Stirling Prize in 2009.

In a recent public lecture at the Carnegie, Charles Jencks tantalizingly raised the question of which of the Maggie's Centres was better and more popular than the others. A group of cancer survivors toured several and indicated their preference. But Jencks coyly avoided saying which. Perhaps he has a different preference than the tour group did.

Is it Frank Gehry's version in Dundee? The building is sufficiently quaint in its compact size, plaster walls and stubby tower, with a quintessentially Gehry-esque roof of crenelated metal.

Or is it the Rem Koolhaas/OMA version at Gartnavel Hospital in Glasgow, where L-shaped rooms connected at irregular angles enclose a leafy and contemplative central court? Here, as in a number of the projects, the landscape is designed by Lily Jencks, daughter of Maggie and Charles, a key figure in the humanization of these works.

In Maggie's Centres, organized by the New York School of Interior Design and curated by the Carnegie's Raymund Ryan, there is a great pleasure in seeing these contemporary masters work on a smaller scale than usual. And there is a palpable but unquantifiable sense that a personal, poignant relationship results in especially compelling architecture. In current times, architecture can further perpetuate the health of the living, even as it memorializes the dead.

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