Interview: Lily Jencks, architect

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With her glossy black hair, porcelain skin, flashing brown eyes and joie de vivre, Lily Jencks may look familiar. If she doesn't, the surname certainly will.

The spitting image of her mother, Maggie Keswick Jencks, whose name has become synonymous with the cancer caring centres she co-founded with architect husband Charles before her death from breast cancer in 1995, 29-year-old Lily is very much her mother's daughter.

Not only has she followed in her footsteps with a career in architecture and landscape architecture, but she has her mother's easy sophistication and enthusiasm.

Maggie's legacy is the drop-in centres, with six in Britain - Edinburgh, Dundee, Kirkcaldy, Inverness, Glasgow and London - four temporary ones, including Hong Kong, and plans to open four more, including a second in Glasgow and one in Barcelona.

As she moves around the light-filled Edinburgh Maggie's, rays of winter sun bounce off a simple swirl of silver hanging at her neck.

Designed by her father and made by jewellers Hamilton and Inches to raise funds for the centres, the pendant is inspired by the Jencks' Garden of Cosmic Speculation at Portrach House near Dumfries.

"The design is based on two galaxies which is typical of my father, who looks at the universe and where we come from and what connects us with it. It's dynamic yet solid, yin and yang, movement and stillness. It's a metaphor for life."

Based between Glasgow and London, Jencks' life has become inextricably linked with the drop-in centres, just like her mother's.

A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, she is currently working on gardens for the centres in Glasgow and Hong Kong as well as on outdoor spaces in Geneva and Paris for projects with her father.

"When I'm designing the gardens for Hong Kong and Glasgow, I'm trying to channel my mother to create something unique and joyful. The centres provide an incredible connection with my mother and working with them does link in to that."

Although Jencks is enthusiastic about all the centres, the Edinburgh Maggie's is close to her heart. She remembers the satisfaction her mother found in planning and working on it right up to her death.

Just 15 when her mother died, she admits she found the illness hard to deal with, especially the final two years.

"I was just busy being a teenager and it was tough. I don't think I really knew how to cope. Now I think a lot about how Maggie's helps children who are in the position I was back then. I wish there had been something like this for me.

"Edinburgh opened not long after she died and it's very associated with her in an intimate way. I feel at peace when I come back here. It was a project she really believed in and it's a very meaningful place. She would have been amazed and delighted, and probably very humbled by it. She was ambitious for the centre and invested so much in it, but I don't think she imagined it would be a movement and take off so fully as it has."

Jencks is a great believer in the restorative powers of nature to help combat illness.

"There's the importance of seeing a landscape grow and interacting with and tending it, and then there's the dynamism of nature, the trees changing with the seasons and you realise that you are part of it and have a connection with it. Gardens provide escapism everyone needs now and then. We all need to catch a glimmer of it to take us away from things."

A glimmer, a little skip, a sparkle, the centres, Maggie, Charles, Lily, everyone touched by cancer; it's all connected and Jencks hopes the pendants will help strengthen those bonds.

"I really hope they're popular and people can see that dynamic in them that connects to the centres. They have a kind of life force or energy to them because of the swirl. That skip is there."

The Maggie's Pendants are available from Hamilton and Inches, 87 George Street, Edinburgh (0131-225 4898, and the Maggie's website (, 245, with 100 from each going to the charity

This article was first published in Scotland On Sunday, 20 March, 2011