Starchitecture Helps Heal Cancer Patients

Hospitals are some of the worst buildings around. But plenty of research shows that physical surroundings can improve health. Which is what makes the Maggie’s Centre initiative so brilliant.

Maggie's Centre

Hospitals are some of the worst buildings around–the sterile rooms, the dearth of daylight, the miles and miles of beige. But research shows that physical surroundings have everything to do with staying and getting healthy. Which is what makes the Maggie’s Centre Initiative so intriguing.


Maggie’s are a series of cancer treatment facilities that place architecture at the fore of healing. They don’t purport to supplant chemo. Instead, they espouse basic quality-of-life stuff like natural light, lots of space, and views of the outdoors that make being sick suck a little less. Maggie’s visionary and design theorist Charles Jencks calls it the “architectural placebo effect.” (The centers are named for his wife, who died of breast cancer in 1993.)

So since the ’90s, Maggie’s centers have sprung up all over the U.K., with razzle-dazzle works by Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Richard Rogers (whose design we covered here), and Page and Park. And now, the organization has plans to erect another seven buildings. Rem Koolhaas (below), Edward Cullinan (top), and the late Kisho Kurokawa (above) are among the architects.

In the U.K., where bashing the merits of modern architecture is a national pastime, the initiative has drawn plenty of scrutiny, as The Guardian reports. There are those who say the money would be better spent on research or new medical equipment and those who doubt the very premise that good design can heal. Others accuse the initiative of exploiting cancer to win architecture awards.

It’s a distinctly ungenerous read. The sterile, inhumane hospitals of the 20th century were a consequence of germ theory, an era from which we’ve thankfully moved on. Shouldn’t hospital architecture follow? In some cases it has (see our previous stories here and here), but mostly, a visit to the local ER still feels like something out of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

The Maggie’s buildings might not save your life. But at least they have a bedside manner.


About the author

Suzanne LaBarre is the editor of Co.Design. Previously, she was the online content director of Popular Science and has written for the New York Times, the New York Observer, Newsday, I.D