The Maggie’s Centre at Charing Cross Hospital-more than just a review of the garden.

It is the mark of a successful concept when, in what should be a garden review, you find yourself talking at least as much about the building and its inhabitants as the garden itself – a sign that the whole project has gelled together.

 

Maggie’s Centres aim to assist cancer sufferers holistically, so that they can optimize their chances of successful medical treatment and recovery. It is important if you are physically and mentally low that things are made as easy to find as possible. And though it is sitting in the lee of the towering Charing Cross Hospital, no one could miss The Maggie’s Centre here. Its walls are ‘Jaffa’ orange, the roof dynamic seems to hover above these as though lifted by the warmth within and you instantly feel sure that this is going to be a positive experience.

Dan Pearson’s concept for the garden takes you directly from the hospital gate along a serpentine hoggin path and between a cluster of the inevitable, (it being London), old plane trees. The effect of going between the trees and the slight kink in the path is of being drawn forward as though through a venturi. And, in the words of a member of staff, ‘you immediately feel you are in a completely different place.’ This is achieved despite all the hustle and bustle of Fulham Palace Road directly through the railings behind. No mean feat.

There are challenging places to plant and then there are what one might frankly describe as complete nightmares. Here, anything which is planted contends with traffic fumes, ground congested with tree roots, edges no doubt trodden on by the keen gardeners looking more closely at the plants, and dry shade, the knotty issue feared by many a gardener. It is in these circumstances, that Dan Pearson has given us 3 master classes in 1: the first being the plants appropriate to the growing conditions, the second the winning nature of a simple plant palette and the third an ‘artful’, but completely ‘artless’ distribution of material such as Euphorbias, native Irises, Heucheras and Sarcococca which combine to achieve a naturalistic effect.

The woodland path opens out into a paved area which is spacious but remains human in scale. Planting moves seamlessly from the shade of the plane trees into the sunlight where upright white flowered loebneri ‘Merrill’ magnolias are juxtaposed with the broad orange façade of the building – how sensational must those look when in flower. Likewise in counterpoint to the building a long bench, placed directly at right angles to the centre itself, could seat a number of small private discussions.

Compared to the vast many windowed hospital block above, the Zen like centre has few ground floor windows. However it is a world away from being the kind of grim citadel this makes it sound. One large aperture, with an integral seat to front with sliding internal shutters within, admits to an inner courtyard. So curiously you look at inside space which is actually outside as you pass by. You also see into the building beyond.

To one side a vast, wheeled, glass entrance gate with ‘Maggie’s’ etched on it is open wide. Again there is no doubt where to go.

In yet another blurring of the boundaries between worlds, two sections of the wall stand free and the canopy of the building overhangs this to create a linear porch-like walkway, taking you to the front door.

The covered nature of the area is yet again a plantsman’s test and so far so good. In this glowing protected corridor the planting builds an oriental feel, with bamboos, ferns, loose grasses and suitable climbers.

A window with integral seat gives onto the outside world, but since it is frosted its only intrusion is some creamy light and the entrancing shadows from the birch palisade which flanks the street on two sides of the site.

The main door gives access to a welcoming area, with various rooms and spaces running off it. So there is internal privacy, lots of small intimate spaces for counselling and quiet time out for patients and staff alike. As with the Maggie’s Centre which we visited in Dundee last year, the kitchen seems to be a kind of central hub, much as it is in any home these days! Light floods down into this area from apertures pierced in the dynamic roof space above as if reflecting the pervading warmth of the place and its staff.

It is hard to describe in words or photos the allure of the inner contemplative courtyard spaces. The protected environment they offer allows the growth of tender species such as Tetrapanax papyrifer. But spaces are for humans! And although separated merely by glass screens and doors from the main inside space they give a sense of privacy and withdrawal which we all need from time to time.

The largest has space for a dining table and chairs and looks out onto the paved courtyard at the front, whereas the smallest has simply a bench and a warming wood burner.

The upstairs space is equally uplifting with glass walled niches for staff workstations and counselling areas. Three terraces give yet more inside outside space. At this point you see that all the roof apertures are cross banded with metal grids to filter the descending light. Two face to the south, giving Mediterranean planting environments in large wheeled planters and one to the north for more shade loving characters. These are funky areas with colourful furniture and make great chill-out spaces. We particularly liked the way the floorboards of the upper space extended to become the pergola in the lower!

So the building and its garden seemed very human and kindly in its rather grim and faceless surroundings. We felt that, if you were using the Centre, you could not fail to be uplifted by the design which simultaneously takes the inside outside to welcome you and brings a feel of the garden outside into the building. We loved what we saw outside, but the whole is what captures your heart.

 

L and R

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