Having recently completed works at Maggie's centre in Southampton, we sat down with Maximiliano Arrocet, one of the directors at the award-winning AL_A studios, to talk about their use of light, novel material palettes and building for wellbeing in architecture. 

Cantifix: You’ve worked on a huge range of projects, from space-age tables to an entire shopping district in Moscow, but an overarching theme seems to be the utilization of light in unusual ways. The latticed roof at the Abu Dhabi Mosque, the dappled, ethereal light of the MPavillion in Melbourne and, of course, the shifting, sinuous reflections on the mirror-like rainscreens at Maggie’s Centre in Southampton. What draws you to play with light, in particular sunlight, in such unusual and novel ways?

Maximiliano: Our relationship with and response to daylight is a fundamental part of human nature, and integral to our wellbeing. In many ways, architecture is carving with light.

At AL_A, we have developed a relationship with light where reflection, refraction and colour play an essential role in the design of a specific volume. At both the MAAT and the V&A, we introduced oculi as a method of bringing daylight down into the subterranean gallery spaces.

At MAAT, the waterfront context was essential to the project, and so we found a way to literally reflect this onto the floor of the Main Gallery; the oculus combines with the geometry and materiality of the façade to bounce sunlight off the water and into the building.

At the V&A, there is a paradox built into the Exhibition Road Quarter project in that the big event, a vast new gallery space, is hidden below ground. To resolve this paradox, we developed the concept of ‘making visible the invisible’, which runs throughout the design, in large moves and small details alike. The oculus brings moments of dramatic daylight into the gallery and, conceiving it as a museum vitrine, it allows views through the structure to the void below to reveal the gallery ceiling.

At Maggie’s, our experimentation with light and form continues. The undulated stainless steel surfaces that clad the private spaces create an impressionist reflection of the gardens, sky and ceramic walls. The geometry of the ceramic block module itself was designed to play with the light and reflect the gardens further. We selected two pastel colours for the glazed faces of the blocks. Colouring the angle faces of the blocks gives you a completely different reading of the walls depending on your vantage point. The colour helps the wayfinding, but also establishes a chromatic dialogue with the gardens.

The circular skylight is the centrepiece of the space. It is the only curved element in the design; the geometry allows the light to diffuse into the central space, the pivotal point at the centre of the pinwheel plan. The white ceiling gently curves to form the circular opening, allowing plenty of daylight in and providing visual connectivity to the sky. The skylight sits directly above the kitchen, the social, communal and emotional heart of this Maggie’s.

C: On the theme of light, whether it’s refracted from mirror-polished steel or simply streaming in through a window, it’s a hugely important component in maintaining our wellbeing. As the world moves towards a more holistic approach to wellbeing, how important is architecture in this drive to improve wellbeing and what factors are the most important to consider when building for better physical and mental health?

M: At Maggie’s, we imagined that a piece of garden had been transported from the New Forest into the midst of the hospital’s concrete landscape. The centre emerges from the garden, an understated building filled with light that is designed to lift the weight from your shoulders.

Lockdown has thrown into sharp relief the hardship of those who do not have the luxury of generous indoor space and access to outdoor, green space. We have to re-think this imbalance. Space and nature are a need not a luxury.

As architects, we build because we believe in a future. We need to create places where we can live better together and live better with nature. Places that promote a network of co-operation and where people can rediscover the art of living. And where wellbeing not efficiency is the measure.

C: Following on from Amanda Levete’s work at Future Systems, AL_A projects use a hugely varied and often cutting-edge material palette. The tables mentioned above utilise silicon carbide, commonly found in ceramic brake pads, bullet-proof vests and even cladding for nuclear reactors. How important is it for architects to embrace new technologies and materials as we face increasing challenges and even threats from things like global pandemics (with Covid-19 being the most serious so far, but certainly not the last) and climate change? On the flip side, are there limitations of using new materials that need to be tested and developed?

M: As architects, it’s our responsibility to continually pursue materials and technologies that benefit our community and the environment. Right now, sustainable materials should be our primary focus.

Recently, we’ve been exploring sustainable composites. Reinforced concrete was revolutionary as the first composite material in the world, but the environmental impact of concrete and steel production means we need to find new solutions. We’re looking into how we might combine materials with different structural properties and characteristics – cellulose, flax, sustainable carbon fibre and bio-resins – to create beautiful, sustainable and optimized construction solutions.

These could be cross-laminated timber beams with a carbon fibre base, or a reimagining of the simple adobe block using flax fibres, both aimed at securing strength while using sustainable materials. By reconciling nature and technology perhaps one day we can find a way to build that is positive for our environment.

C: Maggie’s often uses architecture to promote wellbeing in their centres, having worked with world-renowned architect practices like Gehry Partners, Zaha Hadid Architects, and, of course, yourselves. How does the design of the Southampton Centre specifically marry up with Maggie’s use of architecture to promote wellbeing – it must have been quite a challenge to create an ethereal, serene oasis in the middle of a carpark in an urban hospital!

M: Connecting with nature has proven benefits on human health, and so the garden was central to every design choice we made at Maggie’s Southampton – particularly in the context of our site, one surrounded by cars. In fact, we redesigned the car park and optimised its layout to convince the hospital to give us more space to extend the gardens.

The landscape surrounding the centre lifts up at the edges of the site, so that when inside looking out from one of these private spaces, your view is always of nature, and not of the car park beyond.

Different levels of privacy within the centre were a key requirement of the brief. We introduced rectangular elements running in parallel to the four walls, which provide the right level of acoustic and visual privacy. The interstitial spaces between the walls and the boxes generate the communal and flexible spaces that a Maggie's needs – moments to connect with others, but also moments where to sit with your own thoughts.

C: As well as the unique material palette, utilizing mirror-polished steel and load-bearing ceramic, the building also has an unusual footprint, a pinwheel radiating out from the middle of the site. Was this dictated by the constraints of a slightly awkward site or is there some deeper purpose to the slightly atypical layout of the building?

M: The pinwheel plan emanates from adjacency diagrams in the Maggie’s brief – it responds directly to the amount of private and public spaces required. We fixed the heart of the building, the kitchen, and organised the required spaces around it, resulting in the four-spoke layout.

The pinwheel also creates the defining linear elements of the centre – the ceramic blade walls – which transgress the boundary between inside and out, and serve to connect the most important element in the design, the garden, with the inside. The four walls also create framing opportunities, allowing us to display the four distinct gardens through large sliding doors.

The orientation of the building and plan was defined by the connection to the oncology centre at the hospital. The longest wall is positioned to visually guide you from the exit of the oncology centre into an inviting central space within the centre.

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