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Jencks’s philosophy under fire

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February 24 2006

“A group with a collective character; one which would like to see their beliefs accepted more widely, with a charismatic figure at its head.. There is a tendency in this movement towards the proscriptive and the cultish.” Not the description of the latest group on the Religious Right in the US but the opinion of Dr Michael Fitzpatrick, GP and author, on Maggie’s Centres. Fitzpatrick gave his description of the cancer care charity and its campaigning figurehead, Charles Jencks, at a recent debate organised by Blueprint Magazine at the Royal Academy in London.
Despite commending the quality of architecture, Fitzpatrick launched an assault on Charles Jencks’ belief that design could prolong life. Fitzpatrick identified three features he found damaging about Maggie’s. The first is a “hostility towards traditional hospital buildings [which] is linked with a disdain for medical science”. The second is the “concept of the expert patient”. This imposes a burden on patients “to take the lead in seeking out new therapies and in second-guessing their specialists”. He also argued that Jencks’ philosophy left cancer overladen with meaning.
The forum gave the opportunity for other critics of the centres to have their say. Simon Davies, of the Teenage Cancer Trust, said that although he loved the philosophy of Maggie’s Centres, he was “jealous” of the way they operated outwith a healthcare bureaucracy that others were forced to deal with. “We are dealing with a functional and clinical environment and we hope we can achieve improvements by taking a similar philosophy into the hospital. That’s a real challenge, to take on the functional and clinical requirements that exist and create places that, as one teenager we’ve worked with said, are ‘good places to be when you are having a bad time’,” he said.
Jencks defended himself in robust fashion. “We are not a movement nor do we want to foist our views on anyone,” he said, adding that “Maggie’s Centres bends over backwards not to lay that trip on anyone”. Asked by Alan Little of the BBC whether he thought that architecture can actually prolong life, he stated that “I believe that we can prove more with a match study I believe it will show that statistically, over time, to have made a difference, but to date there haven’t been enough studies,” he said.

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