Nigel Young/Foster+Partners

Less than a year after garden designer Maggie Keswick Jencks died in 1995, the nonprofit she founded in the final years of her life opened its first cancer care center in Edinburgh, Scotland. The center, designed by Richard Murphy, was not a treatment facility but a quiet space for contemplation and support, and a place where anyone affected by cancer could come and talk to counselors or fellow patients.

In the 22 years since, Maggie’s Centres have inspired a new approach to cancer care. Today the organization, led by Jencks’ husband Charles and former oncology nurse Laura Lee, operates 19 centers throughout the United Kingdom—with recent locations in China and Japan—all of them designed by distinguished architects, such as Zaha Hadid, Frank Gehry, FAIA, and Steven Holl, FAIA. In April 2016, the latest and largest Maggie’s Centre, designed by Foster + Partners, opened in Manchester, England.

Like many Maggie’s Centres, the building is intended to feel more like a home than a hospital. Nestled within a residential neighborhood at the end of a tree-lined street (a short walk from the Christie, a renowned cancer hospital), the 5,400-square-foot, single-story building hosts a variety of intimate spaces, including a kitchen, a “living" room with a fireplace, and a covered veranda, which allows patients to sit outside even during the rainstorms for which Manchester is famous.

Foster + Partners
Foster + Partners

“It creates a sense of place,” says Darron Haylock, a partner at the firm, who visited Maggie’s Centres around the U.K. to get a sense of their daily rhythms.

Lord Norman Foster, Hon. FAIA, a Manchester native as well as a cancer survivor, was a natural choice to design the center. Haylock says Foster was intimately involved in the design process, from selecting finishes to choosing the center’s furniture. “He had a very clear idea of what he felt the building should be,” he says.

The center’s most distinctive element is its exposed timber structure. Inspired by early wooden aircraft as well as the common garden trellis, Foster + Partners designed a structure of 17 wooden portal frames with a central, light-filled atrium flanked by outstretched timber beams. Spaced every 10 feet, the portal frames divide the building into intimate spaces while the flanking beams, supported near their ends by thin metal posts, create open rooms at the perimeter.

Nigel Young/Foster+Partners

Viewed from its south end, the structure resembles a steampunk airplane with broad wings and a prominent greenhouse as a lush, botanical “cockpit,” as some design team members called it. If the building’s form feels aeronautical from certain vantages, its underlying structure is rather human. “The structure is the protagonist,” Foster scribbled on one early sketch: “Tiptoes lightly on the site.”

It was an idea that Charles Jencks embraced during an early design review with Foster. “The wooden aeroplane,” he remarked, “turns out to be a series of ballet dancers joining outstretched arms—a good symbol of our collective cancer approach.”

Each beam, joist, and column is designed as a tapering truss, comprising laminated veneer lumber (LVL) routed to create an internal lattice-patterned web. Each beam member is 25 feet long and tapers from 23 inches deep and 5 inches wide at their column support, toward the building’s center, to 2.3 inches deep and 4 inches wide at their ends. At the frame’s haunch, the intersecting beam and column members tie into a triangular wooden node via small steel straps screwed into the timber.

Nigel Young/Foster+Partners

The density of each truss web corresponds with the intensity of the loads that the member is carrying. Near the triangular node, where bending forces are high, the lattice is tight; toward the beams’ ends, the lattice opens up. “The spacing of those struts is very closely linked and determined by the stresses of the beams and the spans they have to make,” Haylock says. “So it informed the architecture and created the architecture.”

Interested contractors had to build a full-scale mock-up of a portal frame before they qualified for the project. Blumer Lehmann, a Switzerland-based timber engineering and fabrication company, was awarded the project. For the LVL trusses, Blumer Lehmann cut plies of furniture-grade spruce using a five-axis milling machine to rout out each web member and then adhered the plies in layers. The orientation of the angled struts comprising the web alternate, creating the lattice. The trusses were then shipped to the building site and erected in less than six weeks, Haylock says.

Like all Maggie’s Centres, the Manchester structure intertwines architecture and landscape, surrounding itself with fruit trees, shrubs, and water features. For Jencks, this was a vital acknowledgment of the importance of design, which Foster echoed in a testimonial on Maggie’s Centres website: “For so many people—more all the time—there is life after cancer, even if that is a changed life. I believe that quality in care and design can go hand-in-hand, and together be more effective.”