Maggie’s Cancer Caring, Centre in Swansea, by, Kisho Kurokawa with, Garbers & James, echoes, the Metabolists’ interests, in biological forms and, traditional typologies, suggests Peter Salter. Photos by Paul Riddle.
The Maggie’s Centre at Swansea has been completed by executive architect Garbers & James from a sketch by Kisho Kurokawa, who was commissioned shortly before his death in October 2007. Thore Garbers and Wendy James had the twofold task of translating and developing this drawing from the master’s hand into an architecture that followed not only his ‘Metabolist’ spirit, but also the Maggie’s Centre ethos of caring for those with cancer through counselling, relaxation, information and mutual support. Nine such centres have been built around the country; all offer a calm shelter and internalised landscape from which to look out, a place where one may step aside from the regimes and the exhaustion of treatment.
In his book Late-Modern Architecture (1980), Charles Jencks writes of Kurokawa’s philosophy of ‘energy metabolism and infrastructure’. One imagines that for Jencks, as co-founder of the Maggie’s charity, to have commissioned Kurokawa is to have re-established what he calls the ‘multifarious’ ideas of the Metabolists in an exemplar pavilion. The Cancer Caring Centre sits as a bright pendant, a final piece in an overdeveloped and chaotic campus that is a tartan grid of dour brick buildings as infrastructure. It is built on a bluff overlooking Singleton Hospital at the west end of the site, with Swansea University continuing the grid plan to the east end of this serviced plate, which is edged by rush hour traffic and bendy buses. As a member of the Metabolists, Kurokawa was part of what the Smithsons described in Architectural Design (February 1961) as ‘the rebirth of Japanese architecture’. This generation of Metabolists provided, often through the pages of AD, an admiring counterpoint – whether as soul-mates or even cocking a snook – to the published work of Archigram. Kisho Kurokawa’s Agricultural City (1961), Peter Cook’s Plug-in City (1963) and the Smithsons’ 1 West North (1983) – which they described as a final tassel on the edge of the carpet that is the campus of Bath University – all strategised around the idea of a larger infrastructural network. Perhaps the commissioning of the nine Maggie’s Centres throughout the UK could be said to be such a network – a network of sanctuaries. Its expansion to Swansea is particularly poignant as the city has large areas of deprivation, and the poverty of post-industrial South Wales encourages chronic sickness.
This exemplar building by Kurokawa offers a different vocabulary to the adjacent structures, such as the 1970s maternity unit. It is reminiscent of an expo pavilion set in an early-90s Japanese trade fair, jostling for recognition among the clutter of medical kit and large structures. It is without a contextual architectural measure; its form derives from an idea conceived far away, it tries to make a place from a condition, which is the NHS services. Garbers & James’ plan plots a central ellipse from which wing-like forms spiral away to the edges of the drawing. Jencks writes that Kurokawa’s favourite concept was that of engawa, a ‘semi-public space’ between two forms or intervals, like a ‘space between two musical sounds (as in Zen aesthetics)’. At the Maggie’s Centre such spaces are the counselling rooms in the wings on either side of the central room. The central space finds its origins in the niwa of the traditional minka farmhouse, in which cooking and indoor work took place around a hearth. In the Maggie’s Centre the central room is also a place for cooking, reading and relaxing around an open fire and, following the orthodoxy of the minka house, is the threshold to the counselling spaces beyond. The depth of space is made by the curving wing forms and changes of section, so that at the furthest extent of the counselling rooms a single visitor is enveloped by that same sectional change, in the manner of a perspectival device. In his book Beyond Metabolism, Michael Franklin Ross describes the Metabolist manifesto as a ‘collection of divergent viewpoints’. It is remarkable that such a manifesto could encompass the traditional forms of culture and architecture while embracing such things as the megastructure, additive forms of construction and capsule living. Ross writes of ‘the both/and culture’ that ‘the norm allows Japan to remain conservative yet be very avant-garde and to continue in traditional ways yet adapt the very latest Western innovation’.
Garbers & James’ task – ‘to build a sketch’ – was very difficult because the visionary sketches had clear intentions but the complex geometries had not been defined. This was hard-won, necessitating visits to Japan to see many of Kurokawa’s buildings. Experiencing their proportions suggested that a metre should be cut from the height of the form translated from the sketch.
The roof structure conjoins the conflicting geometries of the whole in a complex tubular steel ridge that twists and spirals, enabling the roof finishes and soffits to be hung until they meet the concrete frame beyond. It is reminiscent of the exposed structures of the 1970 World Exposition in Osaka, particularly of the sculptural piece standing in the Festival Plaza that had an almost zoomorphic form. The main greeting space in the Maggie’s Centre has an oculus at the centre of its elliptical form, made from the geometries of the roof. Similar to the eye-like shapes found in many of Kurokawa’s architectures, it looks down upon this entrance.
The building is reached by a curving pedestrian street climbing up to the remains of a bluff that was presumably part of the cut-andfill construction of the hospital campus. The wing form that springs from the central space
envelops the visitor; its profile confuses, the eye unable to distinguish between section and perspective. Once again, zoomorphic forms come to mind: the standing-seam zinc roof that follows the profile of the wing becomes an arête-like feature as the wing tapers to nothing. The profile is like the crest of the Great Crested Newt, curving along the back of the animal. It directs the eye to the body of the building, and once inside becomes the reference from which to measure the re-entrants and escarpments of the sea cliffs overlooking Swansea Bay. As a borrowed landscape, the zinc frill atop the wall blots out the car park and other ephemera of the modern hospital.
Zoomorphology might also be included in the manifesto of the Metabolists. Jencks writes: ‘Metabolism became an extended biological analogy meant to replace the mechanical analogy of orthodox Modern Architecture’. On re-examination, the outline of the plan drawing looks like the heavy, broad and jowly face of a Japanese cat. The face-shaped room becomes a domestic hearth, the tufted ears become the private spaces for individual or group consultations. Comfortable and warm, the cat can be imagined sitting on the low benches that trace the curvatures of the internal walls. These wide, maple-faced ledges covered with bright cushions can be used for lying on or resting a book during a moment of contemplation. The bench registers floor level and, as in the minka house, the floor becomes an important surface on which to sit and rest or to stretch and exercise. It brings the eye level down, so that the windows become a measure of section and a place from which to view the semi-enclosed gardens planted with tall grasses. Just as the interior of the minka house specifically locates daylight, either as clerestory over a screen or where, at low level, the open shoji casts light across the space, in the Maggie’s Centre the window cill becomes part of the bench detail, registering light and inviting relaxation.
The elliptical and curved geometries of the building suggest an in-situ construction, but the form is made from a concrete frame on which precisely curved precast components have been laid. These large concrete panels give solidity and a grounding to the building. Titanium fragments are inset into the face of the panels and catch the light travelling across the curved surface, echoing the zinc roof and the grey light of the sea beyond.
All credit must be given to Garbers & James for its translation of Kurokawa’s sketch, which has taken four years of research and construction. I have also welcomed the opportunity, generated by this cross-cultural building, to become reacquainted with the early writing of Charles Jencks and Michael Franklin Ross, and to relocate in my memory the circumstances in which the Metabolists, the Smithsons and Archigram exchanged ideas between the UK and Japan.
Peter Salter is professor of architectural design at the Welsh School of Architecture, Cardiff University. His buildings in Japan include the Inami Woodcarving Musuem, a mountain pavilion in Toyama, and a folly in Osaka.
Kisho Kurokawa (1934-2007) came to prominence as a founder of Japan’s Metabolist movement (1960) before setting up Kisho Kurokawa Architect & Associates in 1962. His major projects can be found in Europe and across the Far East. Kurokawa was also politically active in Japan, and a prolific and well-regarded author on architecture and philosophy (ph: Koji Kobayashi).
Garbers & James
Wendy James and Thore Garbers (far left) worked at Studio Daniel Libeskind in Berlin and New York, and formed London-based Garbers & James in 2005. Their work includes architectural projects in Europe, China and Canada, as well as product, furniture and set design.
Architect: Kisho Kurakawa and Garbers & James; structural engineer: Arup; m&e engineer: KJ Tait; landscape architect: Kim Wilkie, Terra Firma; civil engineer: Ramboll UK; cost and CDM consultant: Turner & Townsend; contractor: Sir Robert McAlpine; client: Maggie Keswick Jencks Cancer Caring Centres Trust.
Selected suppliers and subcontractors
Precast concrete: Thorp Precast; steelwork: Littlehampton Welding; roof carpentry: Ian Williams Carpentry; Rheinzink roof: All Metal Roofing; specialist joinery: J&E Woodwork, Ian Williams Carpentry; roof glazing: Ridlands; flooring subcontractor: 21st Century Flooring; maple flooring: Oldenburger Parkettwerk; rubber flooring: Dalsouple; lighting: Erco.
First published in AT224, January 2012