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The building that wants to 'hug'

9 October 09 23:02 GMT

By Jane Elliott
Health reporter, BBC News

When Cathy Davies was diagnosed with breast cancer she had innumerable questions.

Questions about her treatment options, medication and her future.

Although happy with her NHS treatment at a top cancer hospital she was looking for something else.

Somewhere she could get help without spending even more time in a hospital situation.

A haven

So when a friend recommended the newly-opened Maggie's Centre, in the grounds of the London's Charing Cross Hospital, the 51-year-old knew she had found a haven.

"I don't know how it works, but it does," she said.

The Maggie's Centres, which are funded by donation and free to users, are built around a focal kitchen.

There is a large central table and the kettle is always on and the emphasis is on creating a homely and practical environment.

All the seven buildings across the UK have been designed by prominent architects and the London centre is no exception.

Designed by Richard Rogers at Rogers Stirk Harbour & Partners, it has been nominated for the prestigious Stirling prize for architecture - the results are to be announced on October 17.

But whether it wins or not the general consensus is that the building is a triumph.

Powerful architcture

The Royal Institute of British Architecture (RIBA) explains that the power of the building itself is vital to Maggie's.

"It is not normally in the power of architecture to move onlookers to tears, but this extraordinary building has inadvertently proven its ability to do just that," says the judges' citation.

"How is it possible that a building can generate an immediate and pervasive sense of welcome, warmth, serenity - and even love - in the context of a frantic Hammersmith thoroughfare, and in the shadow of a dauntingly huge NHS hospital?

"Their quietly confident building is truly, unquestionably a haven for those who have been diagnosed with cancer.

"Their achievement is in having created a completely informal, home-like sanctuary to help patients learn to live - or die - with cancer."

Laura Lee, the chief executive of Maggie's, agreed that the building is an important tool.

"It has got to be comfortable," she said. "It needs to be an environment that people can relate to. "

Ms Lee, a former nurse said the inspiration for the centres had come from Maggie Keswick Jencks, a landscape designer and painter, who was herself diagnosed with terminal cancer.

"Right from the beginning Maggie's experience was of having her chemotherapy in an internal waiting room with no windows," said Ms Lee.

Maggie was convinced that those with cancer deserved and should have better. The Maggie's Centre concept was born.

Creating an ambience

The centres offer a place for those with cancer and their families to meet, get advice, or even just have a cup of tea in the homely kitchens.

Every area has been carefully designed to create a comforting environment, from the sitting areas furnished with soft-seating to walls lined with books.

The centre has no doors, but, if needed, privacy can be created by sliding screens, translucent glass panels or the bookshelves across.

Ms Lee said the design is vital for creating the right ambience.

"When they come in they are not being pushed into a building that is institutionalised and signposted," said Ms Lee.

"It is like a home an airy space.

"When we opened our first centre the experience of people walking through the door was that 'this building makes me feel like I've been hugged'."

Cathy agreed:"I don't think I would have been so positive had Maggie's not been there for me.

"It was everything about it from the light they encourage in the place to the people.

"If you want help they are there, but if you just want to look at the books or literature you can.

"You can just go in, sit down and have a cup of tea and talk to the people who are there.

"The environment is incredibly important."

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