Daniel Libeskind unveils ‘world-of-joy’ Maggie’s Centre in Hampstead

‘The doctor will see you now,’ quips someone as my slot arrives to talk with Daniel Libeskind, who’s sitting upstairs in one of the consulting rooms of the new Maggie’s Centre designed by his practice, which has just opened at the Royal Free Hospital in north London.


It’s the 24th Maggie Centre to open in the UK – each providing free expert care, support and advice to those with cancer and their family and friends. The organisation was initiated by Maggie Jencks, herself suffering from cancer, who believed together with her husband, architecture critic Charles Jencks, that environment played a significant role in cancer treatment. This led to a roster of international architects being invited to design the centres over three decades, the first – by Richard Murphy – opening in Edinburgh in 1996. Libeskind was invited to design one early on: ‘I was friends with Maggie and Charles, so I think that maybe I was one of the first to be asked.’

However, the original site he developed a design for in Cambridge proved unsuitable and it was only then in 2017 that he started working on a new scheme at the Royal Free. The scheme gained planning permission in February 2021 and has been constructed with the help of Berlin-based Magma Architecture as associate architects.  ‘I’m only sorry that Charles didn’t live to see it: we discussed this building a lot,’ says Libeskind.


Walking up the curving stair before meeting him, the verticality of the new centre, stacked up over three storeys, is striking. It’s a verticality necessitated by the very tight, awkard site, which is tucked up behind the hospital, backed up on an incline against a boundary wall at the top end of a car park.

‘It was a hideous site when we first saw it – covered with containers,’ says Dame Laura Lee, Maggie’s CEO. ‘We thought Daniel would know what to do!’ What he has done looks from the outside a bit like a crooked house from a fairytale, with its splayed walls clad in prefabricated vertical timber louvres and wonky windows with clunky blue frames. Around it, as yet immature planting by Martha Schwartz will eventually grow to provide a veil of trees and bushes as a softening threshold.

I ask Libeskind about the challenges of developing a scheme for the site. ‘It was not obvious what to do here,’ he says. ‘You look at this great big hospital, the complex neighbours and topographical changes, the parking lot. How do you transform it and give people a completely new orientation, so that you’re not dominated by the hospital but are enclosed and given a world of joy in this small site? It’s about creating a space that is beautiful, that has a melody to it.’


He creates this ‘melody’ he says through the shifting geometries: ‘It’s a kind of matrix of curvature. There are three centres of the curves, which are then complemented by four planar elements [the glazed entrances} that cut through the space. It’s a poetic journey through light, intimately weaving all the spaces vertically across the different levels of the building, which opens up towards the sky and the garden on top.’

So does he always think of his buildings as journeys? ‘Yes. Or like a story. I went to a Mozart concert at the Cadogan Hall last night and Mozart symphonies are stories. They’re not just abstract music; I’m a musician and the structure of music and architecture move like stories or sequences in a similar way.’ It’s an analogy he has often drawn. So does he listen to music to help him design? ‘I actually don’t. I see a lot of people in my studio who do. I prefer quiet.’


Here, the ‘story’ of the building takes you from a kitchen, visible from the entrance and centred – as at all Maggie’s Centres – around a bespoke kitchen table, here designed by Studio Libeskind to be ‘like a pebble’ and fabricated by Temper Studio, past an adjacent library and quiet room, up to a first floor with more private counselling and multi-purpose yoga rooms. It ends at second-floor level in a pavilion room for reading, or games, surrounded by a roof terrace.

I ask whether he looked at any of the previous Maggie’s or other buildings as precedents. ‘No, I don’t develop the design of my buildings by looking at other buildings; I’ve never done that in my life.’

The roof terrace is still rather bleak, with the thin planting beds waiting for spring growth: ‘I think it will be one of the beautiful parts of the building. Plants will grow and provide real privacy and intimacy there,’ says Libeskind.


The press pack notes how the centre’s form is influenced by natural forms such as seeds and I ask Libeskind whether he sees the overall design as biophilic: ‘No, I wouldn’t say that. It’s architectural. Biophilia is not really me.’

He is also dismissive of parametricism. ‘I have never had any interest in it. This is not a building that is turned out through a computer system, where you just press a button and gives you all the sections. No, it’s a kind of hand-made, traditional architecture; really hand-crafted I would say: small enough to feel that every corner has been designed.’


This ‘hand-crafted’ building is constructed of a steel frame, concrete slab on grade and composite (concrete and metal) deck floors. There had been a plan at one point to build it using a timber frame, but this was shelved: ‘I don’t even remember why – probably cost issues.’


So, does he still see it as a sustainable building? ‘Yes in terms of the thermal performance of the windows and walls and materials: while it’s not timber structure, it is timber-clad, which has a warmth to it. I always wanted to make it as a timber building not a steel or a concrete or a tile building.’

In truth, the cladding of Nordic spruce and pine CNC-cut timber cassettes clad in LVL (laminated veneer lumber) looks about as artificial as natural wood can be. Has the practice started using more recycled, sustainable materials in other projects? ‘Of course. We’ve even developed a a ceramic tile with titanium, which absorbs carbon dioxide. All these new technological innovations are important.’ It’s this instrumental, technocratic approach to sustainability that clearly informs the thinking behind this building and not more passive material qualities.


However, inside, the building is warmer and welcoming, with oak floors and shelving designed to act, Libeskind says, as ‘a counterpoint to the industrial look of the hospital. ‘It’s more domestic to provide comfort for people.’

The spaces are augmented and softened by the carefully chosen art and furnishings that is typical for a Maggie’s Centre and which here include curtain-like hangings by Petra Blaisse, infused with landscape imagery.

So, does Libeskind see this building for care acting like a protective shell? ‘Well, it has to be. To provide a certain level of security. I don’t mean physically, but in terms of mental psychology: you have to feel good in the building.’ And, for all its slightly clunky detailing and slap-dash approach to sustainability, you do.


Source:Daniel Libeskind

Project data

Start on site 2021
Completion date January 2024
Client Maggie Keswick Jencks Cancer Caring Centres Trust (Maggie’s)
Construction cost Undisclosed
Gross internal floor area 454m²
Architect Studio Libeskind
Associate architect Magma Architecture
Landscape architect Martha Schwartz Partners
Main contractor Sir Robert McAlpine
Structural engineer Expedition
Mechanical engineer Buro Happold
Electrical engineer Buro Happold
Fire consultant Buro Happold
Furniture procurement consultant Coexistence