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Things That Only Get Better

Posted on: 11/02/2013

TrainersI don’t know whether you caught the item on BBC Radio 4 on Saturday morning on what apparently is called “emotionally durable design”. Jonathan Chapman, professor of sustainable design at Brighton University, was talking about designing items that people would still want to own in say 20 years time. One example was some trainers designed by Emma Whiting, with a stain resist pattern, so that as they pick up dirt the pattern emerges. You can find the interview here.

This got me thinking about buildings. To generalise, traditional building materials and detailing are all about ageing well, whereas  buildings in the modern era are all about the pristine photographic image on Day 1. There is a whole sub-discipline of conservation that deals with rescuing modernist buildings, which often fall out of favour and are difficult to rescue – Dudley Zoo is one example.

Another example from the interview were a set of wooden coasters, which are allowed to stain through use, but where the stains become part of the design. The current fashion in architecture for unprotected timber boarding which is allowed to weather naturally is perhaps trying to achieve the same thing. This is fine where the material is matched with appropriate detailing which allows the timber to weather equally, but usually one ends up with unsightly staining Beverley Minsterbetween areas that see the rain and those that do not.

So what does ‘Emotional Durability’ have to do with churches? We live in a culture where we are encouraged to crave new things, and where it is the poor that have old, second hand objects. So to see value in old churches is quite counter-cultural; yet if the gutters are kept clear and if cement mortar is not used for repairs these buildings are amazingly durable, and in general people love them for still standing there, often at the centre of their community. They provide a sense of rootedness amidst the newness of the objects we surround ourselves with. And for new church buildings, we should think beyond our own immediate needs, and think of the ‘lovability’ of the work we do for future generations. By doing so we can put our present functional needs in the context of the bigger story of which we are a part, of those who came before and those who will follow after.

 

Church-in-a-Box

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.