Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
The celebrated architectural theorist, who died this week, left a down-to-earth legacy: thoughtfully designed buildings and landscapes for people with cancer.
The architecture writer and landscape designer Charles Jencks, who died earlier this week aged 80, was one of those rare theorists who put their ideas into concrete action. Born in Baltimore in 1939, the U.K.-based writer became an influential early advocate for Postmodernism in architecture, as well as a creator of remarkable, haunting landscapes that have already been acknowledged as masterpieces.
Perhaps his most meaningful legacy, however, is something both more workaday and more remarkable. Jencks, along with his second wife, the writer and garden designer Margaret Keswick-Jencks, founded a still-growing chain of support centers for cancer patients, which draw on the healing properties of good architecture.
Called Maggie’s Centres, in honor of Keswick-Jencks, these small-scale institutions are striking, and often designed by world-famous architects. The experience that sparked their creation was nonetheless commonplace: the alienating environment of many hospitals. In the early 1990s, Maggie Keswick-Jencks learned during a hospital appointment following a breast-cancer diagnosis that she had just months to live. With the couple left to take stock in a bleak hallway, an idea took shape.
How much better, they wondered, might it be if patients like herself had more space for support and recuperation? And what if they could access that in a place that was not grimly institutional, but beautiful, calm, and even full of visual delight?
This experience prompted the Jenckses to create (with British architect Richard Murphy) the first Maggie’s Centre, which opened in Edinburgh in 1996, a year after Keswick-Jencks’s death. Sixteen more centers have since followed. Located near National Health Service hospitals whose care they complement, and run by a nonprofit, they offer practical and emotional help for cancer patients and their families, providing a space to get expert advice and therapeutic back-up, and a support network of people in the same situation.
Significantly, these centers aren’t just removed from the hurly-burly of regular hospitals. The buildings themselves enhance wellbeing, with spaces that are great to look at and feel good to be in. Although the concept is to improve patients’ and families’ quality of life—it has never been suggested that the centers’ work is any substitute for hospital treatment—this might offer a secondary therapeutic effect. A long-established body of research suggests that patients get somewhat better outcomes when treated in more appealing surroundings.
Jencks’s standing in the architecture world helped to make the centers what they are. The 17 establishments currently open—mainly in the U.K., but now also in Hong Kong and Spain—are more than just attractive. They are designed by some of the best-known architects of the past three decades.
Frank Gehry, Richard Rogers, Zaha Hadid, Norman Foster, and Snøhetta have all designed Maggie’s Centres, which makes a commission from the organization prestigious. While they vary wildly, all the centers match architectural inventiveness, even playfulness, with a modest human scale to create environments that feel quirky, special, and inviting. Occasionally, Jencks himself became involved in the projects, such as with the landscape Dividing Cells that is next to the Page/Park Architects-designed Maggie’s Centre in Inverness, Scotland.
Given Jencks’s long career as an author, landscape designer, and tastemaker, his legacy extends well beyond these centers. But in matching aesthetic invention with emotional empathy, they are remarkable for foregrounding a quality not often talked about as a primary motivation in architecture: kindness.