Call In The Experts – Katie Treggiden Interviews Lily Jencks

We invited Katie Treggiden from the design blog “confessions of a design geek” to edit the blog this week, Katie is at the forefront of monitoring design and interior trends, her brilliant blog is a go-to for anyone looking for savvy design tips, we were pleased this week to see the launch of the confessions of a design geek bursary at Home, London. Katie is a keen advocate for the wonderful work by the UK cancer charity Maggie’s and their different design projects. Katie interviewed the garden designer Lily Jencks and discussed her work with Maggie’s for the Balcony Gardener blog….

…..Cancer charity Maggie’s provides “emotional, practical and social support for people with cancer and their families and friends.” They do this from striking Centres built within the grounds of specialist cancer hospitals, designed by architects like Rem Koolhaas, Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid. They are well known within architectural circles, but their gardens are arguably the unsung heroes. I spoke to Lily Jencks, landscape architect for the Stirling Prize nominated Gartnavel Centre and daughter of Maggie’s co-founders, Charles Jencks and the late Maggie Keswick Jencks.

Pictured above: the garden at Maggie’s Gartnavel

What was the inspiration behind the garden at Maggie’s Gartnavel?

The brief from Maggie’s, and an intuitive understanding of what Maggie’s needs from a garden, were my starting points, which led to an idea based around the sense of the relationship between the body and its environment relating to the relationship between a building and its landscape.

How did the relationship between architecture and landscape design work in this project?

I actually worked for the architect [Rem Koolhaas] on the building design before I was asked to design the garden. So, they are very intimately connected; with both the views into the landscape and the views into the building very considered and controlled.

Maggie’s Gartnavel is a circular glass building with a courtyard garden at its centre. Did the garden being such a central part of the design put you under more pressure than usual?

Yes, that, and the fact that I was designing in my mother’s memory, and that the architect is my hero. I was quite young to be working on a project with the person I respect most in architecture, so yes, there was a certain amount of pressure!

But we didn’t want to be too precious about the courtyard design. The building is wonderful in its openness with glass on both sides, so we wanted a landscape that felt as though it flowed through the building. We used the same planting inside the courtyard and surrounding the building, for example we planted birch in the courtyard and again in the surrounding landscape, but though using with varieties of birch there is a sense of the landscape changing but not being different.

Tell me a bit more about some of the specific plants and trees you chose.

White birch was one. The building is off-white concrete and we wanted to create a light, hopeful feeling around it. We also used Scots pine, which is very dark and evergreen and so the two play nicely off each other. The courtyard continues this mostly woodland planting but we included more delicate flowering perennials in planters, where we welcome the visitors to plant their own favourite species. We wanted to create a sense of demarcation so Centre visitors would feel comfortable getting involved in gardening in those planters – obviously they can plant wherever they like, but it helps having a designated space.

Why is it important for Maggie’s Centres to have gardens – what role do they play?

I think it comes back to this idea that the human body is affected by its environment – that idea is central to Maggie’s, that environment can help or hinder in healthcare. So in a metaphorical way, in the same way that Maggie’s wouldn’t consider a person in isolation, you can’t consider a building in isolation. Maggie’s always views a person in the context of their life, their friends and family, their groups… so we did the same with the building and the landscape surrounding it.

We also know that access to views and nature can be very healing; access to time, to the seasons changing, seeing the snowdrops come up, and daffodils bloom… when you’re ill, seeing the flows of nature can be quite calming.

What is your favourite feature of the garden?

The reflection courtyard; the mirror piece. It’s a wonderful meditative space. You can sit outside and have a moment of reflection and calmness. It’s quite a strange thing to see the sky reflected on the dark forest floor. People don’t always realise what they’re looking at to start with, so it takes them out of themselves, and into the moment. Being sick with cancer can so often be all consuming, so for a second to be delighted, to be surprised, to see the sky on the forest floor, can lift people. I heard about a ten-year-old girl who came and sat there for an hour while her parents were having a meeting at Maggie’s and she felt it was her place, somewhere she could just be and not think about being ill for a while.

What tips would you give to someone wanting to create a similar haven at home?

I like the orange seats we have in the courtyard – they add a bit of colour and brightness. And even though it’s artificial colour, the rusty red of the planters and the orange Corian of these seats adds a brightness all year round – in the winter it’s the strongest colour, and in the summer it’s surrounded by leaves and green, so it changes as the landscape changes around it. I think a bit of colour and brightness is really important, especially on dark grey days in Glasgow.

To find out more about Maggie’s, visit