Maggie Keswick: China and the Intelligent Landscape

Kalson Ho | Over and Over Studio

Maggie’s Hong Kong, 2013. Architect: Frank Gehry. Photograph © Kalson Ho, Over and Over Studio.

Maggie Keswick’s personal experience with cancer led to the founding of Maggie’s Centres in Edinburgh now two decades ago. Of Scottish origin, the Keswick family has been involved in trading and business ventures in Southeast Asia since the mid-nineteenth century. Raised in both Britain and Hong Kong, where her father was chairman of Jardine Matheson, Maggie was one of those rare Europeans able to visit the historic sites of mainland China after the rise of communism.

This hybrid and privileged background informs the wonderful book that brought Maggie Keswick to the attention of architects, historians, and landscape enthusiasts in the late 1970s. The Chinese Garden was for many a revelatory exploration of the landscapes and pleasure grounds constructed across China for emperors and traders, traditions that are millennia-old yet then little known in the West. “Like the plans of Gothic cathedrals,” Maggie wrote in her preface, “Chinese gardens are cosmic diagrams, revealing a profound and ancient view of the world, and of man’s place in it.”


The Chinese Garden and A View from the Front Line by Maggie Keswick, as pictured in the galleries at Heinz Architectural Center at Carnegie Museum of Art.

This love of gardens and echoes of China itself imbue many of the Maggie’s Centres found today across the UK. “Since I grew up in Hong Kong,” she wrote in A View From The Front Line, her account of living with cancer, “it was natural…to think of Chinese medicine.” In directly architectural terms, Piers Gough describes—in a video in our exhibition Maggie’s Centres: A Blueprint for Cancer Care—how his design for Maggie’s Nottingham was inspired by the oval gates found in Chinese garden walls and his aspiration to make the resultant building “a gateway to people’s future.”

Maggie’s interest in landscape, and her husband Charles Jencks’s encyclopedic knowledge of design theory, led to collaborative proposals for landscape in Scotland in the early 1990s. Writing of their own property, Portrack in Dumfriesshire, Jencks states that “clouds and their fractal patterns have been solidified in rock designs by the Chinese who see the Tao, or the Way of nature, as a ceaseless flow of energy.” In not dissimilar ways, landscape is intrinsic to Maggie’s Centres, whether at the scale of parkland or of intimate urban garden.


Maggie’s Nottingham, 2011. Architect: Piers Gough. Photograph © Maggie’s Centres.

Maggie and Charles’s daughter, Lily Jencks, graduated from the landscape program at the University of Pennsylvania. She collaborated with Rem Koolhaas and his Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) for the garden at Maggie’s Gartnavel. Most fittingly, Lily Jencks recently collaborated with Frank Gehry on Maggie’s Hong Kong, the only Maggie’s Centre outside the UK and one bringing the story and legacy of Maggie Keswick Jencks full circle. This latest Jencks landscape of “water, rocks and planting to represent…mountains, lakes or seas and woodland” is titled Garden of the Intimate Immence.

On Friday, October 24 at Carnegie Music Hall in Oakland, Charles Jencks—architectural theorist, landscape architect, and co-founder of Maggie’s Centres—will present the lecture The Architecture of Hope. The lecture begins at 6:30 p.m. and is free to the public. Organized by the New York School of Interior Design, Maggie’s Centres: A Blueprint for Cancer Care is at the Heinz Architectural Center, Carnegie Museum of Art from September 15, 2014 to January 5, 2015.