In counterpoint to the theme of this issue, Maggie’s Cancer Caring Centres are very much about living and providing hope, albeit set against the threat of illness and mortality. Landscape architect and architecture critic Charles Jencks founded the original centre with his wife Maggie, diagnosed herself with cancer in 1993, as a drop-in centre for support and respite for cancer sufferers. Both believed in the uplifting power of architecture. Maggie died in 1995, but since then twenty centres have been built around the UK and designed by architects such as OMA, Zaha Hadid, Ted Cullinan, Frank Gehry and Piers Gough. Charles Jencks, the original polemicist of pomo, talks candidly to uncube’s Rob Wilson about life, death, hope and what architecture has to do with it.
Can you explain the background to the Maggie’s Centres?
The thing is with Maggie’s is that we are not a hospice, our strapline is: living with and beyond cancer. It’s probably fair to say that people who come to us know that it is a question of life or death. But we don’t focus on the end of life per se. We are part of a new movement worldwide including hospices – and the amazing shift of the mass, factory hospital, towards a more personalised and enjoyable place to be. And we are now living so much more time with and beyond cancer. The average survival time is ten years after diagnosis. It was five years when Maggie my wife died in the 1990s.
I understand it was Maggie, who through her own battle with cancer, had the idea for the original Maggie’s Centre?
“The Big ‘C’”, as Maggie called it, is a death sentence and that is what she got in no uncertain terms in 1993. It’s a horrible thing to be given and you prepare for death. Maggie herself did, she literally got thinner, smaller, whiter, and more ashen and curled up to die as I have described in my book The Architecture of Hope: Maggie’s Cancer Caring Centres.
But at a certain point she decided “no, I need to go down fighting if I’m going to die”. Yet she said that the hardest thing of all was to decide to fight, because then you can fail, and if you fail, you fail big. Whereas if you’re prepared for death then you can prepare for it physically: at your job, with your family. It is in a way easier to take. Whereas if you go out fighting there’s risk involved, and with it hope.
Hope is not like optimism, which, as an attitude based on intellect or reasoning, has a much thinner orientation. Hope in contrast is a psychological, spiritual and physical thing that I compare to the metaphor of the horizon – because it's a projection forward into the future.
And as an architect you capture the horizon – the far off – you project yourself out into the future. The medical profession is future-orientated in that way too. Doctors and architects have a lot in common, because they deal professionally with hope for the future.
I understand that there is a standard brief for a Centre that each architect receives?
It’s from a blueprint that Maggie herself researched and wrote up, before she died – it gave a real focus at the end of her life to do that. Of course we tell our architects, as if we needed to, that we’re about friendliness, homeliness and domesticity, we have to welcome people in. That is our basic job.
But how do you write this orientation of hope – this metaphor of the horizon – into the brief for the architecture?
You want an architecture that can perform this metaphorically, as future orientation, to the horizon, or using the metaphor of nature. There are many metaphors of hope. But the architecture also has to perform practically, to house a whole lot of things. At Maggie’s we do a thousand things, because if you have cancer, you have a thousand things to do. How, if I want a loan, do I tell the bank manager I have cancer? What do I do if my hair falls out from chemotherapy? Where do I get a wig? So hope comes in little tiny practical packages as well as one big metaphorical one.
So the architecture needs to contain different types of spaces and places where people can meet, individually or communally?
One of the things that makes it easier for the architects is that the brief is already written. But they have to interpret it. It is interesting that they’ve produced twenty very different centres. Typologically even, as well as organisationally and metaphorically. Yet they’re all from the same brief. I sometimes contrast this with say a franchise like McDonalds or indeed the Cistercian churches of the 1140s which were all laid out exactly on St Bernard’s instructions. With Maggie’s every centre is different. And that is partly because of our principle that the architects interpret the site, the culture, the meaning, all the rest of it, themselves.
So a bit like postmodernism compared with the universal, one-size-fits-all of modernism?
Yes. In postmodernism the basic idea is not only that of mass-customisation but also the belief that there really are different scientific solutions to the same problem. Whereas Le Corbusier always believed, as modernism always believed, that there was one best solution. An optimum one, if only you could find it.
Still I hadn’t thought that the solutions for the Maggie’s Centres would be so different. But Rem had, because Rem researched it – all the typologies of the previous ones. He then proposed a doughnut shape for OMA’s Maggie’s Centre in Glasgow – like a calculated new move in chess.
And in the last five years they’ve reverted to being more like disappearing icons, in reaction against the icon idea, so much so that Amanda Levete’s new scheme in Southampton has disappeared to the extent that we cannot find it! She’s managed to talk the hospital into turning the car park into a forest and then designed this disappearing building.
But doesn’t each Centre have an iconic role too?
Well, all our buildings are sort of little tiny icons. But I feel that they justify the notion of the iconic building because they are about death, about final things, as well as about hope, deep psychological, spiritual and social. By using anti-symbolic symbolism, they have a very strong emotional charge. Yet it’s very important that we’re hybrid. We are a church that’s not a church, a house that’s not a home, an institution that’s not a hospital, an art gallery that’s not a museum. We’re all these building types and yet we are none of them. And we’ve got to provide a really friendly easy to like place, where you know where the front door is, a place that you feel is homely, familiar.
Just looking at your own landscape architecture practice – there’s a lot of symbolism. Do you see this same balance of the physical and the metaphorical things going on?
Yes I am slightly more polemical in what I do with my work, which takes metaphors of the universe and nature. I try to find what is a visual equivalent for all those retrograde metaphors and reductivist notions – such as Richard Dawkins’ Selfish Gene etc. – which I am critical of – and then design from it. So it’s explorative.
One of the problems I have is that we live in a time of a breakdown of religion, a breakdown of culture, of all the meta-narratives. It’s a culture where clients are completely confused about iconography. They just want escape, to have something immersive – I really can’t hear that word again!
While some of your schemes echo prehistoric forms and standing stones, I know you very much identify with the cosmic rather than the prehistoric per se. I wondered therefore how you view the famous statement of Adolf Loos that: “Only a small part of architecture belongs to art: the tomb and the monument”. This is the sort of opposite, endgame, backward-looking way of thinking in how “the beyond” is signified in architecture.
Well while there’s a lot of historical truth to that statement, the problem is that it is basically not true. Loos wanted his architecture to look like it had been there forever, sort of ageless. He even made his houses into monumental tombs. I understand where he was coming from philosophically.
I can see the tomb and the monument wanting to be abstract, eternal. But if I were to design a cemetery. I wouldn’t do what Aldo Rossi did at his great San Cataldo cemetery. I would try to bring in life. It’s really important to get out of just the tomb and the monument and into life. So it is not about an end but transcendence. I am much more hopeful. If you go back to prehistory to see how these sites like Stonehenge and Woodhenge were used: they were fantastically communal theatrical, celebratory spaces – as well as to do with final things.
Charles Jencks is a world renowned cultural theorist, landscape designer, architectural critic and historian, and co-founder of the Maggie’s Cancer Care Centres.
His best-known book is The Language of Post-Modern Architecture first published in 1977, re-issued as The New Paradigm in Architecture in 2002.
With his late wife Maggie Keswick, he co-founded the Maggie’s Cancer Care Centres which provide free practical, emotional and social support to people with cancer and their families. Since 1996, twenty centres have been built by distinguished architects, with two awarded the Stirling Prize for Architecture. The Maggie's Centres were the subject of his book The Architecture of Hope, recently revised and rewritten for the second edition (Frances Lincoln, 2015).
His celebrated design for his own garden in Scotland is the subject of his book The Garden of Cosmic Speculation (Frances Lincoln, 2003) and he has subsequently worked on landscape design projects in Europe, including an iconographic and green project for CERN, as well as projects in China, Turkey and South Korea.
His most recent project The Crawick Multiverse, was commissioned by the Duke of Buccleuch, and opened in Scotland in June 2015.
That reminds me of Le Corbusier talking about his first visit to New York in his book When the Cathedrals were White, describing the “funereal spirit…of Caravaggio and Surrealism” of skyscraper lobbies and comparing this to the incredible everday life and activity that animated mediaeval cathedrals in Europe.
Le Corbusier’s spirit was incredibly right. I have learned more from Le Corbusier than almost anyone else. He was always trying to give a spiritual message and that is why he had such a profound effect on architecture. All of the great architects who mesmerise people have a spiritual message. He was trying, as I’m trying, to work out how you can transform symbols and bring them alive.
His work is incredibly powerful, emotionally, spiritually. You know he had a tuning fork to the universe. I mean look at Ronchamp, you cannot beat it for this. He is always interesting, however wrong he was in terms of his universalising ideas on modernism.
You famously dated the death of modernism to the demolition of the Pruitt Igoe housing estate in St Louis in 1973. How do you view the strong fascination today with modernist housing estates or brutalist urban schemes, as if they are fragments from some utopian past, before the fall?
Well I think it’s mainly because many people have died, I mean the survivors of the 60s and 70s still don’t think it was ever utopian. So it can look quite beautiful and wonderful to a new generation. It’s a useable past, the problem is that not only is it nostalgic but it is not an educated response. Firstly, architects have always been utopians. But the danger is also that it becomes seen as the architecture of good intentions, to paraphrase Colin Rowe’s famous title. The good intentions often mask ideology and bad motives. It is delivery we want.
And they didn’t deliver, they failed?
Yes. They were ideological rather then real. I have always used Karl Marx’s definition of ideology, which is quite apt here: specifically professional ideology which is held by a profession in order to make more work for itself. That is very strong with architects, with doctors and particularly with lawyers and politicians – if you look at who uses hope the most. Napoleon said, politicians are specialists in hope. They know that it’s their currency. So they devalue it. But it’s still real. You can’t kill hope – even politicians can’t!
And I get that from one of the great books coming out of the Holocaust by Victor Frankl: Man’s Search for Meaning, in which he looks at how the ability to hope helped some to survive longer in the concentration camps. And it is very apt for me in relation to the Maggie Centres. Because it’s odd, hope comes in many different ways almost like a visitation or grace – it arrives typically in a social intercourse, just parachutes in. Frankl emphasises this social collective, interactive nature of hope. And that’s what Maggie Centres can provide so effectively. p