Maggie Centre Garden, Charing Cross by Dan Pearson reviewed by Bridget Rosewell

February 1, 2009

in Garden Reviews, Reviews

This piece has led to considerable correspondence so I have put links to all the longer pieces. Sara Maitland has kindly reviewed the approaches the reviewers have taken.

Anne Wareham, editor

Maggie Centre Garden, Charing Cross, reviewed by Bridget Rosewell

Last week I found myself at Charing Cross Hospital, visiting the fracture clinic in a mood of despondency and apprehension about the state of my broken wrist.  Turning the corner to the clinic entrance there appeared an orange wall which reminded me that the first Maggie’s Cancer Care Centre with the garden designed by Dan Pearson is here.  My heart lifted at the thought that after my appointment there was the opportunity for an exploration.  Three hours later, x-rayed, scanned and as dubious as ever about the future, I emerged in the hope of refreshment of spirit which the write-ups of this garden have described as its purpose.

What a disappointment!  OK, I couldn’t see the internal spaces and it is January, but it seems to me that it is precisely in such circumstances that a garden ought to be inspiring and offering scope to imagination and fantasy.  What did I see?  A packed down gravel path curving to the orange walls, with massed mulch on either side. This path is the only (all year) access to the Centre. Some rather dispirited perennial clumps do their best to break up the mulch and are backed by the now ubiquitous groups of multi-stemmed small trees (sorry but don’t do plant names very well).  You would have to be very dedicated to modern garden planting to be refreshed by this.

Looking round rather wild eyed and frankly astonished, I reflected on what was wrong here.  I concluded that there were three things lacking.  They are green, seating and a place to cry.  Greenery carries huge symbolism of hope and in a winter garden gives structure and density.  It is no accident that so many successful gardens have yew hedges.  Seats give the opportunity to meditate, to doze and to absorb the reality of growth and renewal.  A place to cry is denied by the busyness of hospitals and the necessity of treatment.  But recovery requires it and it in turn requires privacy and hidden corners.

So I walked up and down the path and felt no better, indeed more depressed.  I pressed my nose against the windows of the centre to try and discern whether there was a much more successful space within from which the cancer sufferers at least benefit, even if mere fracture victims cannot.  This may be so, though it is a pretty small building.

The only comfort I took was from thinking how I might do this differently.  For this, the inspiration turned out to be the quite formal gardening outside the new buildings beside City Hall on a development known as More London.  Here there are a variety of trees set into paving and granite block benches with box hedges giving true horizontals against the slope of the paving.  The planting palette is limited but gives both a variety of greens and muted colours.  Here is a place to refresh the spirit.  Perhaps the bureaucrats of City Hall and the lawyers and accountants of the other occupiers have a greater need than cancer sufferers?

What is even more bizarre is that the Cancer Care Centre garden is written up as such.  The More London garden is ignored even by its sponsors and designers, who photograph the hard landscaping and water features and the plastic tree (god help us) while ignoring the fascinating rhythms and geometry created by the soft planting which humanises the steel and glass.  Visit both, compare and contrast and reflect on why gardens matter.

Bridget Rosewell

Bridget Rosewell’s website

Maggie’s Centre, Charing Cross website

Comment from Matthew Appleby:

Interesting… he’d say it is far from mature, on a difficult site etc. Also, only being looked after one day a month I think. It had boards and bits and pieces from builders on it for ages. Plans are to let patients grow in it.

Matthew Appleby’s blog on the Horticulture Week website

Comment from Victoria Summerley:

I haven’t seen this garden, so it’s difficult to comment fairly. However, as someone who has spent a lot of time on cancer wards recently, I don’t think this garden would do much for me.

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Comment from Joan Edlis:

This writer is far more adept than I am at describing what she saw. I concur with her view but would add a few other comments.

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Comment from Anne WarehamthinkinGardens editor

I do believe this is not ultimately about Dan, but about how gardens and designers get talked up. The nature of the materials in gardens is problematic, they don’t lend themselves to year round splendour, and indeed, rough edges are inevitable. But you’d never know that from the garden media. Never mind that there are real and serious design weaknesses even from the most celebrated designers – inevitable when there is no critical base or discussion for designers to think around and no challenge to the perception of universal splendour.

Extra 20th April 2009: Matthew Appleby tells me that it is much improved by daffodils and blossom right now, so I have asked Bridget to revisit. But Kim Wilkie (below) clearly had access to parts of the gardens that non-cancer patients cannot reach.

Comment from Kim Wilkie – landscape architect – 30th April 2009

My attention has been drawn to the comments about Dan’s garden and I was wondering if I could add a short comment?

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Revisited in interests of fairness, Bridget Rosewell:

I made an effort, got on the bike and zoomed up there (well maybe zoom an exaggeration).

It’s still boring.

Bridget Rosewell’s website

and then:

Comment from Katherine Lambert – editor of the Good Gardens Guide

To make sense of the setting, orange wall and all, you really do have to go inside the Centre, which gives out an almost tangible feeling of being greeted by a friend’s warm hug – the womb-like kitchen dominated by a huge table and surrounded by small rooms for sanctuary or solitude; the warm wood on floors, walls and ceilings; the scattering of small and calm – almost Zen-like – areas of grasses, greenery and water; the terraces scattered with containers, seats and tables. The meandering path and soft planting outside fit in far better with all of this, and I would think are far more welcoming to patients, than a formal setting and ranks of seats could ever be.

Good Garden Guide website

Comment from Corinne Julius:

I went to the opening of the centre and had talked to Dan about it a year before, so perhaps I am not entirely unbiased.

When I went the site was still a bit bleak but the planting wasn’t finished, so the path was very much in evidence and not yet softened by the planting. Nevertheless I did experience a definite feeling of peace as I walked towards the centre. It took me away from the hustle and bustle of the street outside which is always crawling with traffic. What Bridget couldn’t appreciate was how well the Centre and the Garden relate to each other from inside. Looking out visitors are engaged by the garden especially from the interior space complete with table and seating with a large aperture looking over the path. As an entity it works well.

It isn’t one of Dan’s very planty gardens, although in time it will be a richer mix. He did spend a lot of time talking to cancer patients seeking out what they wanted, particularly one (now dead) who encouraged his current approach.

I don’t think that the staff and patients will be upset about the review. They may disagree. Perhaps we should look at it in comparison to the new garden by Arabella Lennnox Boyd for the Dundee Centre which opens next week. (Any volunteers to do such a review? ed. –

You can’t always like criticism, they don’t in the theatre either, but it can be helpful as long as it isn’t malicious. It wasn’t. We all have to take comments. Much as I don’t want to antagonise Dan, people are entitled to comment.

Comment from Sara Maitland

Dear thinkinGardens,

I have been reading and thinking about these reviews of the Dan Pearson’s Maggie’s Centre Garden with an increasing sense of bafflement and frustration.  May I make some comments not on the garden (which I have not seen) but on the reviews of it.

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Responding to Sara: Ruth Chivers – garden designer and writer

In similar vein, I heard an ‘ordinary’ garden visitor’s criticism of a garden owned by a TV gardener that was looking very, very shabby when she made a 120 mile round trip to visit it on an NGS day recently. Spent 10 minutes there and left. Not the first time I’ve heard similar about this garden… If the same happened when eating out, we’d complain about a poor meal wouldn’t we? So why not complain about disappointing gardens?

Comment from Anne Wareham

Ruth didn’t want to name the garden. Should we be prepared to do that, as we would with a restaurant or, indeed, a picture, a novel, a song? What are we afraid of?

Then in late April 2009 the RIBA made an award to the Maggie Centre

Yesterday the London Maggie’s Centre, designed by Rogers Stirk Harbour & Partners with landscape design by Dan Pearson Studio, was awarded an RIBA London Award and also the top prize of ‘London Project of the Year’ Award.  The landscape and garden design were specifically commented on by Alison Brooks, the Chair of the Jury.

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