Last 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. The 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.
To 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.