Skip to main content

Healing garden lessons from Maggie’s Hong Kong

Healing garden lessons from Maggie’s Hong Kong

There are several views out from the Frank Gehry-designed building on to the pebble-edged pool.

Stephanie Mahon discovers the thinking behind the therapeutic gardens of Maggie’s Centres at the first centre outside the UK

When Maggie Keswick Jencks died in July 1995, the plans for the first of the cancer caring centres that bear her name were on her bed. She had fought and lost a long battle with that disease, but her vision of a supportive space for those living with cancer would soon come to fruition. The designer, a long-time collaborator with husband Charles Jencks on landmark projects such as The Garden of Cosmic Speculation, believed that places have the power to help or hinder those who are ill.

“In general, hospitals are not patient friendly,” she wrote in A View from the Front Line, a description of her experience of diagnosis, recurrence and treatment. Under the heading ‘Waiting areas could finish you off’, she described how the design of a large hospital can cause unnecessary extra anxiety. “Simply finding your way round is exhausting… Overhead (sometimes even neon) lighting, interior spaces with no views out and miserable seating against walls all contribute to extreme mental and physical enervation. Patients who arrive relatively hopeful soon start to wilt.”

She imagined a purposely designed, relaxing place where those affected by cancer could go to have a cup of tea, talk or just sit in a welcoming, comfortable environment. Back then, Maggie was forging a new course, but 20 years on, the idea of therapeutic architecture and landscapes is not so unusual. In the intervening years, ‘starchitects’ including Zaha Hadid, Norman Foster, Frank Gehry, Richard Rogers and Snøhetta have all designed Maggie’s Centres across the UK, and there are more planned from Cardiff to Barcelona.

Lily Jencks.

A world apart

“The Maggie’s brief is unusual, as it’s more an atmosphere than a direction on square metres,” explains Maggie’s daughter Lily Jencks, who runs her own architecture and landscape architecture practice. “There should be a variety of spaces for different interactions, and it should be anti-institutional – that is, not like a hospital – with no entrance desk, signs or corridors. It should be a break from the hospital and create a world apart.”

But it is not just the building Maggie was interested in – she felt that the environment around it was of utmost importance too. A healing garden would take into account the heightened senses of people suffering from the side effects of chemotherapy, and offer a place of colour and scent, with clear foot paths, shady seating with a view and sculptures to contemplate.

These elements were at the forefront of Lily’s mind when designing the garden for the Maggie’s Centre in Hong Kong, the first centre outside the UK. “My mum was brought up in Hong Kong, and they have a similar health system to the NHS, so it became obvious we should create a centre there.”

The garden wraps around the corners of the building, referencing Chinese garden designs. Paths are made from a mix of bricks, tiles and decking.

It was decided to build the centre in Tuen Mun, a large town in the New Territories whose hospital serves more than 1m patients a year, about 15% of the Hong Kong population. World-renowned architect Frank Gehry, a friend of Maggie’s, was starting work on a housing development in Hong Kong, and having already designed the centre in Dundee, agreed to work on the Tuen Mun project. Years earlier, Lily had done work experience with him, and so he asked her to come back on board.

“We designed the building and the garden very much at the same time,” Lily says. Inspired by her mother’s seminal book, The Chinese Garden (published 1978), they focused on two key elements of Chinese garden design. “The first is the pavilion in the landscape – there is never just a building or a landscape, but an intense relationship between the two. The second thing was the importance of views. A Chinese garden is a microcosm of the macrocosm, representing all of nature,” Lily continues. “Even though it is a small space, to make you feel it is bigger, they subdivide it; and edges continue around corners, so it’s never clear where the garden ends.”

Creating connections

Gehry designed a pavilion-like structure that faces out at all angles to the garden, with a multitude of roofs in different finishes jutting out above white rendered walls. “The building’s massing is directly related to the gardens around it,” explains Lily. “In this sort of project, you want to create two different kinds of views: a big space, where you see a horizon and feel connected to something distant; and smaller garden rooms for people to have private moments, with a sense of enclosure. This helps create two different experiences for users.”

When it came to developing the landscape and garden design further, Gehry asked Lily to take it on alone, as she did for the centre in Gartnavel. When she first saw it, the site was a mound surrounded by large flame trees and a little grassland beside the hospital car park. “It was the helicopter pad site, so we had to keep the building height lower than the existing trees. It is wonderful because the helicopter pad is not used that often, so you have a larger view of an expanse of grass, and on a good day you can see the mountains, beyond the high-rise buildings. That sort of open view is rare in Hong Kong.”

The boundary is densely planted to provide a buffer from the road alongside.

Before this scenic view is the most memorable feature of the garden: an organically shaped, pebble-edged lake. Towards the front of the building there is another pool from which the structure emerges. “Water is so meditative. It completely changes the atmosphere of the place and gives a sense of wonder,” Lily says. “The concept took commitment from the client, as it was quite expensive, but it was worth it. You walk in and see water on each side – the building is like a bridge over the water.”

The rest of the garden frames the building, and runs around the edges of it past odd-shaped planting beds, with pathways, sculpture and water leading your eye around the corners. Doors open out onto each section, with several large picture windows placed specifically to take in an outer feature or view.

Plans and pathways

As you make your way around, the hard landscaping morphs from decked boardwalks edged with raised beds to sections of brick and upturned roof tile. “The pathways are set out in linear sections to guide you through the space and help define the planting areas,” Lily says. Neither the bricks nor tiles were easy to source – the tiles come from old Hutong buildings from mainland China. Easier to find were the seven Tai Whu rocks used as contemplative sculpture, which came from a ‘rock shop’.

The planting plan builds on what was already there – the mature flame trees, Delonix regia – and comprises mostly small trees, shrubs and groundcover, including Osmanthus, Plumeria, Clerodendrum, Tabertaemontana, Ophiopogon and Iris. “There’s a layer of bamboo at the back to shield you from the large road that runs alongside,” she says. “It is a quite an intense site, but because the planting is so lush it does feel protected.”

The building was envisaged as a bridge over bodies of water.

This Phyllostachys buffer was necessary as Lily’s original plan to have a walled garden was stymied by typhoon regulations. These violent storms are a common occurrence in Hong Kong, and mean that buildings and garden elements must be highly engineered. “We had wanted the building to be a wooden structure, but because of the typhoons, it had to be steel. In the same way, we wanted it to be a walled garden, but putting in the wall foundations to combat the wind effect would have been such a huge job, we decided to use density of planting instead.”

The centre opened in 2013 and offers information, appointments with psychologists and social workers, support groups and classes, all for free and without referral. Lily is governor and has visited many times, proud of the project and how it honours her mother’s legacy, as well as the respite it offers to users of the centre. “Not a lot of people have access to gardens in Hong Kong,” Lily says, “so it is a very special place.”

Planting beds contain plumeria trees with red blossom to match the roofs.

Garden plan.

Project team

Architect: Gehry Partners LLP 

Landscape design: Lily Jencks

Detailing: Ronald Lu and Partners  

Executive landscape team: Urbis  

Landscape construction: Tarzan   

Project managers: Hongkong Land

You might like

Gardens about 4 years ago

Project: Kew’s Great Broad Walk

Gardens over 4 years ago

Project: City oasis garden

Most recent features