“Our relationships with [architecture] are so intimate, so fundamental and all-pervasive as the settings of our lives, that we do not fully register just how much our buildings truly sustain and shape us.”

Architecture is an opportunity. Every building is a possibility of improving the quality of life and establishing deeper levels of meaning. But it goes much further than this: architecture elicits empathetic connections, thereby not only instilling a sense of place but also manifesting as self-realization of sorts, a reflection of ourselves.

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Exterior facade of Maggie Centre ©Steven Holl Architects

Although perhaps overtly existential, and slightly melodramatic, one question that is often underestimated by architects is, “What is the purpose of architecture?” If we return to the primitive shelters, one of the most primary and basic goals of architecture was to provide health and comfort. However, in modernity which prioritizes rationality and the “tangibly measurable”, concerns of shelter, security, and function have become limitations, rather than considerations. If we are to produce truly sustainable architecture, we must also design for ‘health’, based on the intangible psychological and cultural measures which sustain us; concepts of happiness, social connectedness, and quality of life.

As an eco-theologian and cultural historian, Thomas Berry, writes: “[our] progress towards sustainability depends on nothing less than redefining what it is to be human”. By this, Berry implies that a rethinking of all our relationships – between humans and nature – is a necessity. This has been realized through “super architecture”, buildings that are not only more benign in their impacts on the earth but also offer positive benefits for human health and wellbeing. This is achieved through considerations of airflow and ventilation, natural light, active design, a strong relationship with nature, and resilience. As urbanization limits our contact with nature, – and in doing so, enhances existing, as well as new social and mental stresses – an emphasis towards “people-centric” building regulations and guidelines have emerged.

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Interior space using perforated bamboo and active design © Steven Holl Architects

In this regard, the standard for ecological design should be health. Although healthcare architecture is perhaps one of the more literal embodiments of design and health, its evolution as a typology has remained independent of the broader architectural design trends. Hospitals, in particular, have traditionally held connotations to a dehumanizing ethos of surveillance, consequently instilling fear and vulnerability within their patients. In stark contrast, Charles Jencks and his wife, Maggie Keswick, founded the Maggie Centres. This network of non-clinical, cancer care centers express themselves as “architecture [that] helps create the virtuous cycle of the caring cycle”.

Each center is unique and architecturally distinct in its own right. Yet, ultimately they derive from the same founding design principles: light, openness, connectedness to nature, and intimacy through domestic spaces. The implementation of these positive qualities should not be regarded as an advocate for a “deterministic equation” between architecture and health, but rather, an acknowledgment of the inherent relationship between the two. Through meaningful considerations of the human psyche and experience within space, these centers dissociate themselves from the traditional ‘institutional’ connotations tied to this particular typology. As a result, the spaces are de-institutionalized to a more relatable and domestic scale. Therefore, although the example here is for a public space, these design techniques can and should be applied to all scales and typologies.

Steven Holl’s Maggie Centre in Barts is perhaps a reminder that idealism is a beauty of its own; an alternative aesthetic that aspires to rethink and improve the lives of others. Even within its small, urban fragment, this particular Maggie Centre is certainly an “architecture of hope”. Conceptually founded on the idea of “a vessel within a vessel”, the building stands as a basket-like bamboo structure, surrounded by a concrete frame, and then finally encased by glass. This inner layer of perforated bamboo is not only ecologically sustainable but also offers the interior a sense of warmth and comfort.

Steven Holl’s Maggie Centre, Barts © Steven Holl Architects

In comparison, the facade, inspired by the Gregorian chant notation used in St. Barts, is perhaps best described as the 21st century “micro-optical painting”. Through a UV safe film layered between two layers of Okalux, a material that carries the color and provides natural insulation, Holl’s thoughtful orchestration of light and color imitates the stained-glass windows found in a cathedral. As daylight changes, so do the pools of colored light projecting down, instilling uplifting and awe-inspiring energy, despite its smaller scale. Whilst Holl’s design is certainly not sustainably explicit at first glance, it does not make misguided proclamations to be so. Rather than superficial plantings, the architecture is constructed through a consideration of how it feels within the space and instead makes meaningful decisions to achieve this through sustainable materiality and passive design.

Whilst it is all too easy for an architect to address the functional requirements of a brief, sustainable architecture also requires emotional intelligence to truly understand the significance of the built environment on human health. The design details to achieve this “super architecture” are undeniably culturally specific and externally dependent. However, architecture can change the way we live. It has the power to transforms our feelings, our sensations, and ultimately, our well-being.


Buchanan, Peter. “The Big Rethink Part 4: The Purposes of Architecture”. The Architectural Review. Published March 27, 2012. https://www.architectural-review.com/essays/campaigns/the-big-rethink/the-big-rethink-part-4-the-purposes-of-architecture/8628284.article.

Jencks, Charles. “Maggie’s Architecture: The Deep Affinities Between Architecture and Health”, in Architectural Design, 87, 2 (2017): 66-75. BrowZine Library.

Manchanda, Shweta and Steemers, Koen. “Environmental Control and the Creation of Well-being”, inSustainable Healthcare Architecture, ed. Robin Guenther and Gail Vittori (New York,: Springer,2012), 69-81.

Peters, Terri. “Interconnected Approaches to Sustainable Architecture”, in Architectural Design, 87, 2 (2017): 6-15. BrowZine Library.

Peters, Terri. “Superarchitecture: Building for Better Health”, in Architectural Design, 87, 2 (2017): 24-31. BrowZine Library.

Quirke, Vanessa. “Steven Holl on Combining Heritage and Modern Healthcare Design at His Maggie’s Centre Barts”. ArchDaily. Published November 8, 2016. https://www.archdaily.com/798978/steven-holl-on-combining-heritage-and-modern-healthcare-design-at-his-maggies-centre-barts?ad_source=search&ad_medium=search_result_articles.



Jessica Richardson is an architecture student from the University of Melbourne, with a passion for design histories. She believes that, now more than ever, critical thinking and meaningful discussion is crucial for architecture to be at the forefront of change.

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