THERE cannot be many buildings in Scotland designed entirely around a kitchen table... then again, there are few organisations quite like Maggie’s.
Indeed the charity which has provided help, support, and sometimes just a friendly face to countless families affected by cancer for 20 years had a very specific brief for architect Neil Gillespie in designing its new Lanarkshire centre.
Neither a house nor a hospital nor a church, a Maggie’s centre can be all or none of those things to different people, but every visit starts in the same place.
“The kitchen dining area is at the centre of the building,” says Gillespie.
“The idea is that visitors come in, make themselves a cup of tea and sit down for chat, so it creates a very relaxed atmosphere.
“The very core of the building is about hospitality and being welcomed.”
The result - in the grounds of Monklands Hospital in Airdrie - has been nominated for the RIBA Stirling Prize for excellence in architecture and RIAS Andrew Doolan Award for the best building in Scotland.
The recognition is welcome of course but far more important is a building which works for its unique purpose.
Maggie’s Centres are a sanctuary hidden from the harsh reality of living with cancer. They offer a welcoming and calming atmosphere for those who need it most.
The low-lying Lanarkshire building is surrounded by courtyards and guarded by walls offering moments of privacy and reflection.
“I came to Maggie’s as someone who didn’t think that the buildings mattered,” Maggie’s chief executive Laura Lee explains.
“Immediately I realised that there was something about the building that actually helped people feel safe, that it was a secure place to talk about feelings and concerns and a place where people feel in control.”
Maggie Keswick Jencks created the blueprint for the first Maggie’s Centre after being diagnosed with cancer in 1988. She and husband Charles worked closely with a medical team which included then oncology nurse and future CEO Lee to develop a new approach to cancer care.
The belief that patients need information, stress-reducing strategies, psychological support and the opportunity to meet other people in similar circumstances was at the heart of their vision for the project.
The vision was realised when Maggie’s Edinburgh was opened in 1996, with a statue of Maggie standing at the entrance. Since then centres have continued to spring up from London to Hong Kong.
“Maggie and her husband had an architectural background and she felt that buildings could impact how you feel,” says Lee. “She had a very sensible and thoughtful idea that the building should support someone rather than make them feel like less of a person.
“They worked really hard to help people communicate and to be able to communicate you have to feel safe in the environment that you’re in.”
Lorrie Forsyth works both as a clinical psychologist and centre head in Lanarkshire.
“People say it’s quite like a house. It’s not like anybody’s house that we know but it feels familiar and domestic, comfortable and safe,” she says. “The hub of the centre is the kitchen table so people tend to congregate there to have a coffee and blether.
“But if someone wants a private space to be on their own then there are lots of corners and quiet rooms to do that as well. It’s not claustrophobic experience and there’s this connection with the outside which we think is important for people.”
All the support that Maggie’s provides is free of charge and doesn’t require a doctor’s referral.
The centre is open from 9am to 5pm and welcomes anyone who has been affected by cancer, most commonly the sufferers themselves but also family, friends and loved ones.
Linda Murray, 62, started attending a year ago after she received a lung cancer diagnosis.
“I can’t put into words the sense of calm and relaxation you feel when opening the door”, she says.
“A year down the line and I still feel it. It’s my place where I can come and talk about whatever’s on my mind. When you have cancer you don’t want to bring your sob stories to your family because they’ve got enough to carry on their own. So Maggie’s is just magic.”
Maggie’s Lanarkshire’s full title is Maggie’s Lanarkshire at the Elizabeth Montgomerie Building as more than £1 million of the build costs came from The Elizabeth Montgomerie Foundation, set up in memory of his mother by golfer ColinMontgomerie.
“The staff that Maggie’s employs have been the best cancer nurses at the hospital. It’s really important that professionals have a place that they want their patients to go,” Lee explains.
“When someone is in seeing the doctors, it’s a lot of information to take on board over a very short period of time. Doctors are often extremely busy, but are able to say: I know you’ve got a lot more questions why don’t you go over to the Maggie’s centre, which helps people to be brave enough to make that first step when they’re feeling very vulnerable.”