A 1930s Chapel

Posted on: 22/11/2011

20111117-203150.jpgLast weekend I had the pleasure of joining a walking tour of churches in Oxford, organised by the Ecclesiological Society and led by Allan Doig, Chaplain of Lady Margaret Hall. The walk ended at the chapel in LMH, which was designed by Giles Gilbert Scott in the early 1930s. Scott is perhaps best known for his lifework Liverpool Anglican Cathedral, and in Cambridge for the University Library, but also for example Bankside power station, now the Tate Modern, and for the design of the traditional public phone box.

The chapel is Byzantine in feel, with a central dome, circular internally and 12-sided externally. One enters the chapel along a relatively narrow vaulted corridor from the south into the centre of the plan, and after the confinement of the corridor there is a welcome release into light and spaciousness. The layout of the seating is collegiate, with raking pews to each side facing inwards. 20111117-204143.jpgThe walls are almost entirely bare, the wood is light oak, and the feel of the space is both pleasant and convivial.

The arrangement of the space provides excellent sight lines and a strong sense of inclusion; the only downside to this is that there is nowhere to ‘hide’ i.e. to be anonymous. Allan observed that some students feel too exposed. The idea that churches need to provide a welcome place for those who feel less confident is a really interesting theme, which I first heard articulated by James Blandford-Baker at the recent Keystone Church Building seminar.

20111117-204301.jpgTo the west, beneath an elevated organ gallery, is an entrance vestibule which is now used for smaller acts of worship. The apse at the east end is dominated by a baldechino, which is more than a little reminiscent of the iconic telephone box. Interestingly, Gilbert Scott’s 1942 (unbuilt) design for Coventry Cathedral moved the focus of the worship out of the apse and into the centre of the plan, and similarly featured a baldechino. Allan also uses the chapel to hang artwork for temporary exhibitions, bringing welcome colour and life to the interior.

For a detailed look at how the design of our churches relate to the patterns of worship they were built for, Allan’s book on Liturgy and Architecture is highly recommended. This volume covers the period from the Early Church to the end of the medieval period; a second volume is promised to complete the story to the present day.


Posted on: 12/09/2011
internal view of church by Heinz Tesar - Donau City, Vienna

Heinz Tesar – Donau City, Vienna | Nigel Walter

Here is an interesting example of a modern church – the Church of Christ, Hope of the World, at Donau City in Vienna. Clearly this is not everyone’s cup of tea, but as an example of modern church architecture it is both interesting and refreshing.

DSC03022-800The setting for the building is pretty brutal, commercial and soulless – high rise corporate nineties and noughties development, and then a whole load more high rise residential. The building is immediately in front of the United Nations building – you discover the church as you step out of the underground (U1, Vienna International Centre). In this context you need a building that is robust , and this is reflected in what is a bold form and hard materials. The facade is clad in stainless steel sheet, which apparently was dipped in acid to create the darker tone.

But once inside the door there is a sense of tenderness to the building – the interior is almost entirely birch clad, with key elements of fittings in granite. There are major windows in the roof and each corner, and hundreds of portholes perforating the otherwise blank expanses of wall. This creates a luminous and constantly changing feel as the sun moves around the building. It is also interesting for the sense of privacy which you feel – appropriate for worship in a busy urban setting – and openness – it is a building that is easy to get into.

Of course the arrangement is, by its nature, inflexible – this is a building resolutely for a single use. That said, the pews, which are beautifully made in concentric arcs, help preserve a sense of simplicity, create a feeling of of inclusion, and form a strong contrast with the straightness of the box.

Curved skylight

Central skylight, Church of Christ, Hope of the World | Nigel Walter

The basic cuboid form is cut away at the corners for the major windows, making the ceiling a subtle Greek Cross shape. Against this geometry are played a series of curves – not only the pews and the porthole windows, but also the enclosure of the entrance lobby to the south and the storage etc to the west, a large circle inscribed on the east wall, and most particularly the rooflight – suggestive perhaps of the wind and thus symbolic of the Holy Spirit.

The Perils of Caricature…

I visited the building with two of my daughters, who promptly christened it ‘the dog box’ – a wooden box, the porthole windows like air holes, and the curvaceous skylight like the carrying handle. Such labels may not advance the official architectural debate, but can be very powerful in conferring an identity on a building – London buildings rejoice in many such labels such as the cheesegrater and the walkie talkie. More normally the nickname relates to the outward form of the building. Such naming is a powerful (and entirely legitimate) urge, presumably towards appropriation of the building into its environment.

The other point of interest with regard to the Tesar church is that one immediately knows it is a church when one first sees it. The design is very deliberately not drawing on traditional architectural forms, and quite rightly so. Instead it hangs its identity, at least as far as the first impression is concerned, entirely on the white cross fixed on the southern wall. This legibility is crucial, if visitors are to find their way into the building.

For more on church buildings you may be interested in the Church Building Seminar taking place on Thursday 6th October in Histon, Cambridge.

Holiday Club!

Posted on: 04/08/2011


Internal view - Holiday Club in action

Holiday Club in action | Nigel Walter


Each year in the first week of the summer holidays Histon Baptist church hosts a Holiday Club, with over 200 children attending activities each morning. This year was the first time the holiday club had been held Holiday Club bannersince the reordering works were completed. The newly created flexibility of the space has made a huge difference for activities such as this.

“The Baptist Church re-ordering made for a much warmer, user friendly space. It felt open, light and warm yet retained a feeling of intimacy. With a group of over 200 children it gave us much needed flexibility for both all together times and small group times. For us, it is an excellent change.”  Tim Blake, Leader

This is a great example of the additional value you can add to a space with an imaginative reordering – the space simply couldn’t be used in the same way in its old format.

…and outside

The space in front of Histon Baptist Church

Histon Baptist Church during the Holiday Club Barbeque | Nigel Walter

The week was rounded off with a final session on Friday afternoon, followed by a barbecue. Parents are invited to come and see what the children have been up to. For a long time the church has had the benefit of a large expanse of open space at the front, which is the perfect setting for the barbecue. This becomes a great space for an open welcome – there are no divisions between the fully public realm of the road and pavement, and the church’s public space of the lawned area.

The Barbecue Crew

The ‘turn and burn’ crew | Nigel Walter

This ‘forecourt’ is a great asset when used for events such as this – it becomes a space of welcome and inclusion, and provides the church as a whole with a much lower ‘threshold of engagement’ with the community.

And in this case there is space for those working hard on the barbeque too…

In Praise of the (Not So) Useless Jewel

Posted on: 25/07/2011


External view of the Leper Chapel, Cambridge

Leper Chapel Cambridge | Andrew Dunn

Some historic church buildings are just plain awkward, but are also outstanding examples of historic buildings. Take the Leper Chapel in Cambridge, for example. This beautiful little building is undoubtedly a jewel. Built circa 1125, it is the oldest complete building in Cambridge. It was built for the nearby leper hospital (of course then outside of the town), but since the last of the lepers had been admitted by 1279 (and the colony moved shortly thereafter) the building has had other uses for most of its life. The site is bounded by the busy Newmarket Road, and is a stone’s throw from the railway; this relatively recent infrastructure has in a sense strangled the building, cutting it off from its setting, leaving the building itself as a remnant of an earlier age, a historic curio. Never having had a parish, without the hospital it was always on its own.

Internal View of the Leper Chapel

Internal View | www.cambridgeppf.org

Follow the money

In 1199 King John gave the chapel the right to hold a three day fair in order to raise money to support the lepers. Starting in 1211, the fair took place around the Feast of the Holy Cross (14 September) on nearby Stourbridge Common. This grew into the largest medieval fair in Europe, and was hugely profitable for whoever held the post of priest to the chapel. Then in 1546, the chapel was closed and ownership passed to the Crown. After this the building was used as a store and, in the eighteenth century at least, as a pub during the Fair. After 1751, there were no further religious services held at the chapel. In 1783 it was advertised for sale as a storage shed, and in 1816 the Chapel was bought and restored by Thomas Kerrich. Kerrich gave the Chapel to the University of Cambridge, who in turn gave it the Cambridge Preservation Society in 1951.

The Leper Chapel set up for Macbeth, Insitu Theatre, 7th July 2011

The Leper Chapel set up for Macbeth, Insitu Theatre, 7th July 2011 | Nigel Walter

And for our next trick…

So what role can a building like this find now? In terms of modern functionality, this jewel is useless. With ground levels around the church having been raised access is down a long flight of steps, so there is no disabled access. There is no sanitation, no running water, no heating. In terms of modern use, this building is a basket case.

Yet utility should not be confused with value. Today the Chapel is owned and cared for by Cambridge Past Present & Future, and is still used for worship, with Holy Communion on the first Sunday of each month at 9am. The building now derives it identity from its historic roots, aiming to host ‘activities that illustrate the Chapel’s links with leprosy and with the vulnerable and marginalised in society’. The building is therefore making a virtue of its location on the edge, and has what is a potentially powerful voice in representing the outsider.

The building is also used for theatre, and I had the pleasure of seeing a performance of Macbeth by Insitu theatre earlier this month. The adaptation (for a cast of just two – Richard Spaul and Bella Stewart) made excellent use of what is an intimate and evocative space.

The key of course is to get people into contact with the building, which arts events such as this achieve. In time it is hoped to bring in sufficient funds to create disabled access.

You can find more on the leper chapel from Cambridge Past, Present and Future, who own and manage the building – lots here on planned events, access to the building, and how to book it for an event of your own. The Friends of the Leper Chapel, formed in 1999 to promote use of this chapel for education, cultural events and worship, are also worth a visit.

What can church buildings learn from the retail sector?

Posted on: 17/06/2011
All Saints' Church Hereford - view towards cafe

All Saints’ Church Hereford – view towards cafe | Photo Andrew Mottram

Learning from Retail

There are similarities between the Church and the Retail Sector. Such a view may be a surprise to some readers, but think about it before dismissing the notion out of hand.

It may not be a consumer product that we are selling but we are in the business of attracting people to take an interest in Christianity. As the Church, we have a ‘product’ (the Gospel) that we wish to promote and we want to attract people’s interest in the life of the Church, in the hope that these newcomers may make a long term commitment to Christ. There are considerable similarities with what shops and businesses are seeking to achieve in promoting their goods and services to the general public. We have much to learn from the retail sector about how to promote what we are offering and how to attract and keep people’s interest.

The church building is the ‘business premises’ for the Church community. In the various contexts of Church life (parish, diocesan and national), our buildings and property serve as our ‘shop windows’ and they have an enormous effect on how what we are offering is perceived.

Similar to shops, our premises can attract, serve and retain people or, conversely put them off from coming near, let alone inside. Cold, dirty, closed, uncomfortable and unkempt church buildings are a significant barrier to all three Diocesan Priorities. Rather than serve the Mission of the Church, church buildings can hinder it.

Sometimes, it is the building which is not ‘fit for purpose’; more often, it is the way that we manage the building which results in it being a hindrance and barrier.

If a church building acts as a significant barrier to any of our three priorities for action, then it may well be necessary to either make changes to the building and its management or relocate operations to more suitable premises.

All Saints' Church Hereford - view towards cafe

All Saints’ Church Hereford – view towards cafe | photo Andrew Mottram

The Moment of Truth

Many non-Church people have anxieties about and fear of church buildings, what goes on inside them and the people associated with them. For some people churches are virtually alien territory and are viewed with apprehension.

Church members need to have an awareness of a retail principle ‘the Moment of Truth’. This is the moment when all the advertising and promotional claims are measured against what the retailer actually delivers. The person doing the measuring is the customer and if the gap is too big between what is claimed and what is delivered, the customer may well be lost forever.

The Moment of Truth applies to the Church as well. In the case of the Church, the Moment of Truth is when all the claims made in the name of Jesus Christ are measured against what the Church actually delivers. If the gap is too big then, similarly, this too can result in the person never coming back.

Both Church members and church buildings have a big part to play in the Moment of Truth.

‘It is the form of the Church in the West which has become the biggest barrier to the Gospel. The broad sweep of ecclesiastical life does not bear witness to the grace, passion, radicality, authority, tenderness, anger, excitement, involvement or acceptance of Jesus. Unfortunately for us, the medium has become the message. The popular image of Christianity is formed by encounter with the church; and so Christianity is regarded as reactionary, oppressive, conservative, moralistic, hypocritical, boring, formal and judgemental.’ Michael Riddell, ‘Threshold of the Future’ SPCK 1998 – p39

So how far should the church go in learning from the retail sector? Please leave a comment.

[Editor’s Note: Andrew Mottram is an authority on the adaptation of church buildings. He was ordained an Anglican priest in 1979 and had nearly 30 years experience of parish life, including many years of making church buildings work for people. When he was Priest in Charge of All Saints Hereford, the church building was re-ordered and opened up to the community in 1997. Café @ All Saints has proved to be a successful business venture.

The ‘new’ All Saints generated numerous enquiries and requests for help which led Andrew to set up Ecclesiastical Property Solutions Ltd (EPS). From 2004 to 2009 EPS helped over 500 individual Church communities with their buildings and provided training and support to clergy and laity in 23 Dioceses. EPS also worked at a national level with English Heritage, The Church Buildings Council, The Churches Conservation Trust and The National Churches Trust.

Andrew is currently Heritage Buildings and Community Development Officer in Worcester Diocese.]


Is God in the hospitality business?

Posted on: 07/06/2011

mar10 street1Yes, I believe He is! The St Andrew’s Centre, Histon, near Cambridge has recently won planning permission for a radical overhaul of its buildings. Guiding this through to planning permission was not easy (taking some 20 weeks) but the eventual success was anchored in the articulation by the church’s leadership of a clear vision for the project.

That vision is for the hospitality of God. Central to that vision is a top quality cafe that creates an open and generous welcome to the building, which also houses children’s work throughout the week and halls for church use and for hire. The project will make the church much more accessible to the community, since the building is well located on the busy High Street, whereas the church itself is more remote. This is not a building project – it is a mission project that happens to include a building…

As James Blandford-Baker, vicar of St Andrew’s, says, ‘This project is so significant because it is about extroverting our life together; it is putting the life of the community of God firmly into the public domain. It makes us open to public scrutiny of who we are, and of how we conduct our relationships.’

Churches are often significnant buildings within their communities, and all sorts of people may feel a sense of ownership over them. And change is often seen as very threatening. In the case of Histon there were concerns raised from many quarters, including not one but two Parish Councils, meetings were held, additional work undertaken on traffic and highways issues. It often felt like going the extra mile. The Conservation Officer after multiple changes to the design still recommended refusal.

St Andrew's Centre, Histon - plan

Cutaway view of ground floor

But that process was ultimately very worthwhile – toiling through the planning process was also about being God’s community in the public domain. And when it eventually came to the planning committee the application was passed by a huge majority, with Sebastian Kindersley, one of the wiser heads among the councillors, voicing an appreciation for what the local church was willing to do in their community.

Where churches are concerned, a building project is never just a building project.