Architecture for health

Can the way a building is designed really change the way we feel when we use them? We take a look at the architecture of healthcare spaces





Maggie's Fife

Hospitals and hospices are often thought of as stark, uniform, emotionless places. Purpose rather than feeling seems to be the number one priority of those designing healthcare spaces, but there are notable examples of architects proving that it is possible to meet the needs of both.

Penoyre & Prasad’s Sir Ludwig Guttmann Health & Wellbeing centre in the Olympic Village was used during the London 2012 Summer Olympics as the hub for treating injured athletes. It is now an NHS centre for the surrounding community and a fantastic example of how modern architecture can make healthcare environments that welcome and empower visitors rather than treat them as victims in sterile spaces.

The way architects have used light is key.  At the heart of the building is a dramatic four-floor atrium which floods the building with light and a sense of space. Externally, the building has a dynamic, angular roofline, while at ground and first floor level, the building’s frontage recedes to reveal ‘shop’-style units, making the building more welcoming and less alien.

Colour is used carefully throughout. Pops of gold, silver and bronze are a cheeky nod to the building’s Olympic origins, and cheery lime green is used in clinical spaces. And the building is green in other ways too. Rainwater is collected to flush toilets and a green roof has been planted to improve biodiversity and reduce roof temperatures. These are just two factors which led to the building achieving a BREEEAM rating of Excellent.

Maggies Centre    Maggie's West London © Richard Bryant

Maggie’s Cancer Care centres offer another innovative approach, and are committed to making people re-think their ideas about the architecture of healthcare. The charity was named after its founder, Maggie Keswick Jencks, whose distress at being told her cancer was terminal was heightened by the “awful interior space” in which she received the news and then went on to receive treatment. Now, Maggie’s Centres offer support for all people affected by cancer, be they patients, family members or friends in striking settings. The design of their buildings is to inspire and help visitors put living first, and cancer second.

One of these is Maggie’s West London, for which architects Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners were awarded the RIBA Stirling Prize in 2009. With Charing Cross Hospital an overbearing figure on the local landscape, the building was inspired by Richard Rogers ’ concept of a heart hidden away in the protective wrap of a building’s four walls. In contrast to the bland magnolias and whites of most healthcare settings, the building  is painted bright orange and  features lots of open, flexible spaces that can be partitioned off to host everything from one-on-one chats to exercise classes.

More controversial was Zaha Hadid’s Fife Maggie’s Centre. It has a stark, angular design and doesn’t seem very inviting when you first look at it. It’s a building designed to provoke, with some critics even saying that the building’s design could make an already frightening experience worse.

Yet look closer and the building’s structure seems to have a hidden meaning. That angular front seems a little like a concrete arm, protecting the people in it, and the building seems to be facing purposefully away from the grim 19th century hospital behind it towards the green shrubbery  ahead.  And inside, the centre is bright, airy, with excellent views of the natural landscape of the hollow on which the building fits – arranged around the concept of an open plan kitchen.



UCH Macmillan Cancer Centre © Anthony Weller

This ‘home from home’ theme is continued by Allford Hall Monaghan Morris’ North London Hospice, which is quite literally conceived as an oversized house, complete with the gabled roof that is a hallmark of British suburban towns.

Architecture can also have a big impact on mental health settings too. P+HS architects have helped Furness General Hospital greatly improve their mental health facilities with the new Dane Garth development, which addressed the need for additional therapeutic and social spaces by including gardens and a sensory room.  

On a much grander scale, there is the UCH Macmillan Cancer Centre in London, designed by Hopkins Architects. A far cry from the complex dark corridors of many a British health institution, the central atrium is designed for easy navigation of the building, while treatment and consulting rooms are arranged logically  - with one department per floor. On the fifth floor of the building, a large glass roof terrace provides external space and sunlight for patients and their families. Just what the doctor ordered.


Can you think of any other examples of healthcare buildings that focus on feeling and purpose? Share your thoughts with us on Facebook.