The Structure of Support

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The Structure of Support

Foster + Partners’ Maggie’s Manchester was built alongside the city’s Christie Hospital and completed in 2016. The building demonstrates the tightly integrated approach to structure and architecture that is intrinsic to the practice’s way of working. It also aligns with the practical and social requirements of the Maggie’s brief: for a building that will support the charity’s work, perform efficiently and sustainably, and that will provide support for those who use it.

Inspiration and integration

Located across the UK and abroad, Maggie’s Centres are conceived to provide a place of refuge where people affected by cancer can find emotional and practical support. Inspired by the blueprint for a new type of care set out by Maggie Keswick Jencks, they place great value upon the power of architecture to lift the spirits and help in the process of therapy.

All Maggie's cancer centres have been optimistic acts of patronage, and it was a privilege for the practice to be able to contribute to this legacy in a location of personal significance. Norman Foster was born and raised in Manchester – the first modern industrial city in the world – and was greatly influenced by the city’s architecture, characterised by intelligent design and a civic pride that encouraged investment in infrastructure.

Architects and structural engineers discuss the developing design of Maggie’s Manchester. From left to right: Norman Foster, Diego Alejandro Teixeira Seisdedos, Roger Ridsdill Smith, Darron Haylock, David Nelson, Stefan Behling. © Aaron Hargreaves / Foster + Partners


An integrated approach to design has defined the practice from the beginning, and this is reflected in the arrangement of our studio, which comprises not only in-house structural and environmental engineering teams but also urban, landscape and industrial designers, model makers, illustrators, graphic designers, anthropologists, mathematicians and more. It is a model that brings new possibilities to architecture.

‘When people are feeling anxious, the architecture subliminally communicates that they matter and that they’re of value and that life is still worth living.’

– Dame Laura Lee, Chief Executive of Maggie’s.

With Maggie’s Manchester, the design team’s primary aim was to integrate social and contextual considerations. This broadening of our frame of reference reflected our hope that the structure would succeed not only as a piece of design and construction, but also employ its technical means towards social ends. A sensitive approach to the city and the site, the creation of legible and light-filled spaces, implanted in an informal, natural green setting were key in our vision for a wellbeing-focused building that works functionally, socially and symbolically.


Legibility and form

As with every centre, the fundamental purpose of Maggie’s Manchester is to provide both comfort and information following a life-changing diagnosis, and to offer a place of refuge. With this in mind, we began to design an architecture and structure for the building that put the interest of the user first – to create a compassionate space that was appropriate to its location and function.

The Maggie’s Manchester sits lightly on its site, a welcoming structure in a natural green setting. © Nigel Young / Foster + Partners 

Our intention was for the building to communicate its purpose as a space for support and solace through its form and the spaces within it, as well as through the materials used to build and furnish it. The pavilion is a minimal, domestic-scale structure that is welcoming, informal and friendly; a deliberate departure from the necessarily sterile nature of a hospital.

Key to this clarity of purpose was a focus on lightness and legibility; the structure is used to define the volumes and functions within the building. The centre has a rectangular plan organised around a central spine with a raised roof that runs the length of the volume. Staff spaces are placed on a mezzanine floor inside this spine, visible and accessible to all. Closed areas, such as toilets, storage and service spaces are tightly clustered below at ground level, ensuring space for visual connections across the spine and removing some of the formality often associated with therapy or counselling.

A central spine runs the length of the building volume, ensuring visual connections from one end of the centre to the other; visitors enter beside a large communal kitchen table, and the home-like touches continue throughout. © Nigel Young / Foster + Partners 

Visitors enter the centre beside a large communal kitchen table into an open space that stretches from one end of the building to the other, where they are greeted informally by one of the team. Institutional references, such as receptions, corridors and hospital signs, have been banished in favour of home-like touches – sofas, rugs, an open stove and timber bookshelves.


‘It’s so light and open, I feel I can actually breathe in here.’


The structure reflects the legibility of this simple spatial layout and is visible and accessible throughout the centre. For the primary components of the structural frame, we decided upon a digitally optimised evolution of the Belfast Truss: a timber bowstring beam that features diagonal bracing which forms a lattice connecting the upper and lower cords. This truss structure was widely used for industrial buildings at the turn of the twentieth century, due to its material efficiency and low cost. One of the most notable examples of this building type was a pair of large triple-Belfast-Truss aircraft hangars at the Alexandra Park Aerodrome in Manchester, less than a mile away from their twenty-first century equivalent: the algorithmically optimised timber lattice trusses of Maggie’s Manchester.

The Belfast Truss roof of the Duxford air hangar, pictured in 1935, finds a clear echo in the timber lattice beam structure at Maggie’s Manchester. © IWM HU 45919

Structural resonance

The symmetrical spatial arrangement naturally led to the structural system of primary support springing from the central spine, with the roof projecting over the spaces on either side and tapering to a cantilever beyond the building envelope. The timber structure provides vertical support to the roof and mezzanine, as well as sideways stability. The sizing of the columns and beams and their connections are a direct reflection of the loads acting on them – thinner and finer where the loads reduce towards the edges, deeper and more dense towards the centre where the forces on them increase. A series of triangular nodes connect the beams and column trusses where they meet on either side of the central spine. These are a key component in the structural system, channelling external forces such as wind and snow-loads from the roof down to the ground. The clarity of these nodes – identifiably distinct from, but connected to, the beams and columns – makes legible their function and importance to the structural system.

Triangular nodes – a key component in the structural system – connect the beams and column trusses on either side of the central spine. © Nigel Young / Foster + Partners 


Slender steel columns at the other end of each beam prop the cantilevers along the perimeter to make the structural system more efficient. These columns provide a consistent vertical rhythm around the building, as the facade retreats to and from this grid, creating external pocket courtyard spaces and internal niches along the way.

The domestic scale of the centre and the desire for a space that feels warm and natural led to the selection of timber as the primary building material. Forest Stewardship Council certified timber was chosen for its sustainable and structural properties, and cost and carbon efficiency, but also for its feel and aesthetic. The main frames are made of Laminated Veneer Lumber, arranged such that the grain of the wood is aligned with the primary axis of the forces in each member. This results in a structural material that is stronger and more reliable than ordinary softwood, and therefore reduces the amount of material required to perform at the required structural level. The trusses were milled using computer numerical controlled routers; the fabrication information was transferred directly from designers to manufacturers via three-dimensional computer models. Designed to reflect the magnitude and orientation of the loads acting on the members, any portion of the beam that was superfluous to its structural requirement was removed, resulting in the unique lattice structure.

The Laminated Veneer Lumber truss components are pre-fabricated at the Blumer Lehmann factory in Switzerland. © Nigel Young / Foster + Partners 

At its roofline, the building’s lightweight, perforated timber beams taper to a fine point. They support a canopy that is opaque across the main spaces and glazed along the central spine. Openable skylights and ventilation panels deliver fresh air into the building and reduce the need for artificial lighting. The double pitched roof is clad in Nordic Bronze and keeps its profile low, in harmony with its residential urban surroundings.

Wellbeing and nature

Close collaboration within our team ensured both structural clarity and material efficiency. The structure is lightweight and sustainable, with minimal wastage – the material removed from the trusses is used to heat the Blumer Lehmann timber factory. But in this case, the integrated approach had higher aims. The centre’s structure and the warm and natural qualities of the timber beams also fulfil the more human-focused, comforting and ephemeral moments we set out to achieve.

The organic materials used for the bespoke furniture reflect the warmth and care that Maggie’s cancer centres seek to provide. © Nigel Young / Foster + Partners


The organic materials palette extends from the beams down to the bespoke furniture designed by our industrial design team. Reflecting the warmth and care the charity seeks to provide, natural, tactile surfaces and soft fabrics feature throughout. Office spaces and the reception area feature walnut desks and plywood cabinets, while sideboards couple wood with the comforting weight of cast iron. As is often the case in a home, the kitchen is the heart of the building; the island and the storage units are made from oak with Corian worktops, and the dining table has an organic hand drawn tabletop with an ergonomically designed soft bevelled edge. Each piece was produced with a high level of precision yet visible craftmanship. It was important to the team that users see the people behind the product, as well as the great care and attention that had gone into its manufacture.

‘It feels amazing. The smell. All the wood. It makes me want to touch it all.’

The structure appears to grow out of its verdant surroundings, emerging from the vegetation, flowers and climbing garden plants. The landscaping, designed by Dan Pearson Studio, features a range of environments that allow visitors to enjoy the therapeutic qualities of nature and the outdoors, from a working kitchen garden with raised vegetable beds, to thick perennial borders and abundant seasonal planting. One of the principle aims of a Maggie’s Centre is to reduce the stress associated with a diagnosis of cancer. Design that incorporates biophilia – a psychological hypothesis that suggests humans have an instinctive bond with nature and other living systems – is now well documented as having health and wellbeing benefits. Biophilia is primarily a sensory experience, and the sight and smell of the garden percolate throughout the centre as windows and rooflights selectively frame views of the internal courtyards and micro gardens.

The all-glazed greenhouse blends interior with exterior, and acts as both a congenial seating area, workstation and potting shed. © Nigel Young / Foster + Partners

Resolving dialogues

The unique Maggie’s brief asks for a space that is a source of gentle resilience to and a quiet distraction from the overwhelming nature of a cancer diagnosis. The light and airy timber structure, with its welcoming canopies, legible delineation of spaces and thriving garden and greenhouse, seeks to provide shelter and support while allowing visitors to escape and enjoy fresh air.

The centre’s architecture finds its primary expression in the engineering, which is entirely synonymous with the building’s aesthetic. But most important are the human-focused benefits that can emerge from a considered integration of architecture and engineering, and a shared focus on the building’s social function. It is through the user’s understanding and experience of the space that its more intangible character emerges – its purpose, spirit and feeling.

'I just wanted to see it. To see if it is true what they say about it. It's all true. Thank you. It's beautiful. I won't see it again. Thank you for making this for us.’

Unless otherwise stated, all quotes given anonymously by visitors and provided by Sinead Collins, Centre Head at Maggie’s Manchester.

Editors: Tom Wright and Anna Watson


28 April 2020


Roger Ridsdill Smith, Darron Haylock

Partner and Project Architect Darron Haylock and Senior Partner and Design Director (Structural Engineering) Roger Ridsdill Smith were key members of the design team for Maggie’s Manchester.