How can one design a cancer hospital where everyday life may go on? Ask the Netherlands

Utrecht – In the Netherlands, at least 75 percent of children under 18 years of age diagnosed with cancer can expect survival after treatment. Due to the intensity and intensiveness of current clinical methods, though, many have to put their young lives on hold to follow their sessions – which comes at a high cognitive, social and emotional price. 

That’s why, at the new Princess Máxima Centre, the focus is on allowing everyday life to go on.

MMEK, the architectural studio in charge of designing the experience, had a large task: as from now on, all healthcare, research and training in the country related to paediatric oncology is concentrated in the complex, it was important to have the spaces respond to the highly varying developmental needs of every age group, from toddlers to teenagers, regardless of background. ‘That’s why we used a reversed-design approach, where it is not the architectural construction, but instead the needs and wishes of the users that are the most important,’ explained partner Martijn Meeske.

After continuously interviewing patients, parents, physicians and building management early in the design stage, the team felt informed to follow an end-to-end philosophical concept: with Development-Centred Care, the idea is that children can keep strengthening their motor, cognitive and social skills even during treatment. ‘Although getting well again is the first priority, it is clear that many children who had to deal with cancer have problems later on in their lives,’ said Erik van Kuijk, MMEK’s co-founding partner. The goal, then, was to create stimulating environments for them, even with the most minute of details.

The most evident example of this is actually a small detail gone big: IV drips in the hospital are shaped like tricycles, which can be moved by pedalling or walking, or can be attached to a wheelchair or a trolley. ‘We based the design on the guiding principle that children must remain as mobile as possible during their treatment,’ stated Meeske. The fact that pedals-and-wheels are a nearly natural environment for the Dutch, on a vehicle where they feel in control, only adds to the experience.

As patients and their families often feel exposed by the logistics of hospital life, the centre included small hideouts throughout the complex that provide places where they can feel safe behind self-controlled blinds but can still conduct eye contact with the staff, for safety. There are also a series of play and exercise spaces where most of the furniture can be rearranged as needed; for those patients who may not be able to get around easily, a large selection of games and other entertainment options are at hand to provide some distraction. Another feature is the Park, a piece of furniture that ‘fills the space like a landscape,’ as the duo explained, and creates opportunities for discovery, with play elements and relaxation areas for the patients.


And then there are the large-scale experiences, such as the Science & Discovery Centre. The space uses interactive installations to help children understand the disease, their diagnosis and their treatment, and share their insights remotely with classmates or in-person with their physicians.

The design [of hospitals] is not – yet – evidence based, so unfortunately it is often considered of minor interest. The big advantage [here] it’s a new organisation, in which every goal could be reinvented.

The reason why MMEK was able to include these elements is that, for this project, the joint healthcare initiative, which included representatives from the VOKK parent association, allowed them to work with a blank slate of what a paediatric cancer centre could be like. ‘In many centres, the existing healing process is leading: this is how we do things, we know what’s best for the patient, and if the process is evidence-based, why question it?’ said van Kuijk. ‘But the design is not – yet – evidence based, so unfortunately it is often considered of minor interest. The big advantage at the Princess Máxima Centre was that it’s a new organisation, in which every goal could be reinvented.’

Location Heidelberglaan 25, 3584 CS Utrecht

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