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Religious architecture: ‘In whose blent air . . .’

20 February 2020

Ellis Woodman introduces an exhibition that explores recent developments in religious architecture

Gatti Routh Rhodes

Bethnal Green Mission Church, Hackney (2018), Gatti Routh Rhodes. Replacing a dilapidated post-war church, this new building incorporates a double-height place of worship surmounted by a ceiling of diagonal concrete ribs in reference to the vaulting of traditional churches. The criss-cross pattern is also picked up in a dramatic blue and green stained-glass window by Coralie Bickford-Smith, as well as in the detailing of the main entrance gates and the architect-designed lectern. The building’s lower level also incorporates a café, community facilities, and charity and co-working spaces. The development is funded through the provision of key-worker
and private residential accommodation above, known as the Macpherson Apartments after the church’s founder. Sited diagonally opposite Sir John Soane’s St John’s, on Bethnal Green, the brick-and-concrete-faced building responds to the proportions of the Georgian architecture that characterises the surrounding conservation area

Bethnal Green Mission Church, Hackney (2018), Gatti Routh Rhodes. Replacing a dilapidated post-war church, this new building incorporates a double-hei...

RISING from a tower boldly striped in bands of red brick and white stone, the needle spire of St Mary Magdalene’s, Paddington, catches the eye across a wide swath of west London. On its completion in 1877, this dramatic landmark would have emerged from tightly packed streets of terraced houses, but the combined efforts of German bombers and post-war planners have long since erased that original context.

It was not just buildings that were lost. The architect George Edmund Street designed St Mary Mag’s, as it is known locally, with the aim of accommodating every one of the 900 residents of the surrounding parish. Now Grade I listed, it may rank among the most architecturally distinguished churches in London, but, by the early 21st century, Sunday attendance figures had dropped to a couple of dozen, and its fabric was dilapidated.

Waugh Thistleton ArchitectsJewish Cemetery, Bushey (2017), Waugh Thistleton Architects. Commissioned by the United Synagogue, this project enlarged the UK’s most significant Jewish cemetery, a 16-acre site of outstanding natural beauty in London’s green belt. The process of the Jewish funeral defined the design for the extended site. Two new prayer halls are discreetly embedded in the sloping landscape. Corten steel doors complement the natural-material palette, and the calm internal environments are accentuated with subtle, low lighting. A linear reed-bed park facilitates water attenuation, and provides a tranquil setting

In 2011, it was finally thrown a lifeline when the General Synod carried a pastoral Measure that allowed churches to be leased to secular bodies while still functioning as places of worship. Seizing this opportunity, the church issued a lease to the Paddington Development Trust (PDT): a not-for-profit company that works towards the regeneration of an area that is one of the most deprived in London.

Research suggests that 83 per cent of the children who are under the age of 15 in the ward where the church is located come from families dependent on in-work benefits. First- and second-generation immigrants predominate, and the dangers of alienation, and even radicalisation, represent significant concerns. Mohamed Emwazi, better known as Jihadi John, was a pupil at the primary school that abuts the church.

The PDT saw the possibility of reinventing the building as a vital asset for this challenged community, and, crucially, one that would serve Christians and non-Christians alike. With support from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the PDT last year completed a £7.3-million restoration and expansion project, overseen by the architects Caroe & Dow Jones.

The stylish terracotta-faced extension includes a café facing on to the Grand Union Canal, and spaces that are now being used for yoga sessions, English classes, and parent-and-baby groups. The new catering facilities and disabled access are also helping the church to be used for concerts and talks. While it continues to function as a place of worship on Sundays, the expanded complex has been rebranded in pointedly secular language as “Grand Junction: a new venue for the community, arts, and culture”.


AS A representative of the way in which changing social and economic pressures are transforming the nature of religious buildings in Britain, Grand Junction provides a fitting setting for an exhibition, “Congregation”, that opens in its newly restored undercroft tomorrow. Curated by the Architecture Foundation, it presents a survey of buildings commissioned in this country over the past decade by Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, and Buddhist groups, as well as by more recently established bodies such as the White Eagle Lodge.

Roz Barr ArchitectsRestoration and refurbishment of St Augustine’s, Hammersmith (2018), Roz Barr Architects. Commissioned by the Order of St Augustine, the restoration of this 1917 church has been undertaken as the first phase of a building project that will include the creation of a new Augustinian Centre alongside. The work has involved the introduction of a new heating system, and the removal of paint from the church’s timber ceiling and stone columns. The floor level of the sanctuary has been raised, and a new altar, designed by the ceramicist Julian Stair, has been installed. Suspended above it is a new cast-iron light ring designed by Roz Barr, in collaboration with the graphic designers John Morgan Studio. John Morgan Studio also created a fresco for the rear wall of the sanctuary which is hand-painted in gold leaf. New confessional booths formed in the transept take their geometry from the high windows that they frame

It also features projects that answer a demand for spiritual expression among the growing section of British society that identifies with no specific faith, such as Soulton Long Barrow, a burial mound recently constructed in Shropshire and based on neolithic precedents.

Many of the featured buildings accommodate both secular and sacred functions under one roof — an arrangement that can present significant challenges in terms of achieving an appropriate architectural expression, but is often key to achieving financial viability.

Over the past decade, the property-development firm Thornsett has entered into a series of partnerships with church groups to deliver the refurbishment or comprehensive redevelopment of an existing place of worship through the incorporation of commercial housing.

Among these, the redevelopment of Bethnal Green Mission Church (News, 5 October 2018) was a personal project for the company’s director, Bernadette Cunningham, who is also a member of the congregation. The church community had been based on the site for 150 years, most recently in a 1952 building that incorporated a vicarage and doctor’s surgery. While not without architectural merit, it suffered from a range of technical deficiencies.

“If someone was in a wheelchair, either they couldn’t go to the loo or a load of people had to help carry them down,” Ms Cunningham recalls. “If you are there to serve the widest sense of community, you have to ask if your building enables you to do that. It may present children’s safeguarding issues, or simply be unsafe. I worked with one church group where to get out of the upper floors of their building you had to put on a harness and jump out of the window.”

The existing building at Bethnal Green was demolished and replaced by a structure of significantly greater height, designed by the young architectural practice Gatti Routh Rhodes. The 14 apartments on its upper levels subsidised a handsome new double-height place of worship, a vicarage, co-working facilities for charities, a community hall, a café, a bookshop, a community kitchen, and foodbank. The round-the-clock occupation also had a transformative effect on the adjacent park, which had long been blighted by anti-social behaviour.

Ms Cunningham acknowledges that the hybrid secular-sacred model is not one that would suit every church group. “I have met congregations that take the view that nothing should be built above a church,” she says. “I tell them: ‘Land is scarce, and God is not making any more.’”

Those that are keen to pursue such a solution may still struggle to make the numbers stack up. Thornsett’s projects have mainly been in the East End of London, where they have capitalised on the area’s exceptionally buoyant property market. “It can work in places where the economics are different,” Ms Cunningham insists, “but it is a question of each group cutting its cloth. Their shopping list might work in Knightsbridge, but not if they are in Barking.”


THE buildings featured in the exhibition which were commissioned by non-Christian faiths present a statement of the developing multiculturalism in Britain, their contrasting styles reflecting different groups’ attitudes to questions of tradition, reform, integration, and outreach.

Among the most demonstratively progressive is the recently completed Central Mosque, in Cambridge: a 1000-person capacity building designed by Marks Barfield, best known as architects of the London Eye. Their design eschews the use of conventional signifiers of religious function, such as a minaret, achieving, rather, an emphatically contemporary expression derived from the use of a series of engineered timber “trees” to support the roof of the prayer hall. The architects cite these elaborately curvaceous forms as a reference to the Qur’anic idea of paradise as a quadripartite garden, but they might well also evoke memories of the Gothic tracery of King’s College Chapel near by.

Matthew Lloyd ArchitectsSt Mary’s, Eton, Hackney (2014), Matthew Lloyd Architects, a Grade II* listed church built for the Eton College Mission, 1890-92, to designs by G. F. Bodley. Matthew Lloyd Architects’ project involved the creation of three new buildings, with 27 residential units as well as a new church centre and community facilities. Landscaping was undertaken between the new and old buildings. The façades reference the detailing of Bodley’s building. Light-blue glazed bricks contrast with the red brick; white bricks lighten the façade. As with Bethnal Green Mission Church, the redevelopment was undertaken in partnership with the developer Thornsett

The building was commissioned by Dr Timothy Winter, also known as Abdal Hakim Murad, a convert to Islam who serves as Shaykh Zayed Lecturer in Islamic Studies at Cambridge University. A prominent opponent to extremist interpretations of Islam, Dr Winter was particularly keen that the building should emphasise qualities of openness and integration. Set back from its location on a suburban street, the grove of structural “trees” is accessed across a garden that is open to believers and non-believers alike.

It is not only in the city that places of worship are being built. “Congregation” also features several large complexes in rural areas, where a sense of seclusion and intimate connection to nature is achieved. These include a new Hare Krishna Haveli at Bhaktivedanta Manor, the house in Hertfordshire which George Harrison gave to the Society of Krishna Consciousness. Designed by the architects Cottrell & Vermeulen, the new facility stands alongside the existing temple, providing a place where marriages can be conducted and newborn babies can be blessed. Ranged around a planted courtyard, the building also has to contend with the regular influx of pilgrims on festivals — as many as 50,000 people can convene on the site in a single Janmashtami weekend — not to mention the presence of 46 sacred cows and oxen on the site.

Marks BarfieldCentral Mosque, Cambridge (2019), Marks Barfield. This 1000-person-capacity building is conceived as a calm oasis in a grove of trees. The timber columns, or “trees”, support the roof using an interlaced octagonal lattice vault structure evocative of English Gothic fan vaulting, famously used at the King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, near by. The timber is sustainably sourced spruce. Roof lights are located above the trees. The external walls are tiled in the traditional Gault colour with castellated parapets that symbolise the meeting of heaven and earth. Visitors are taken through an Islamic garden to a covered portico and an atrium, and then into the prayer hall, which is orientated towards Mecca

Many of the projects in the exhibition make an explicit association between spirituality and a concern for the natural world. The expansion of the Jewish Cemetery at Bushey, commissioned by the United Synagogue, is articulated to frame nature as a symbol of continuity and spiritual rebirth.

Designed by Waugh Thistleton Architects — and shortlisted for the 2018 Stirling Prize — it is also a project that can claim exemplary sustainability credentials. The new funeral halls have been constructed in locally sourced rammed earth, and set alongside a system of reed beds that facilitate water attenuation and enhance biodiversity.

It is just one of many projects in the exhibition in which faith groups have sought to build in a way that responds to the current crisis. Beyond its spiritual significance to individual faiths, the religious architecture of the 21st century is fast emerging as a symbol of awakening environmental consciousness.


Ellis Woodman is the director of the Architecture Foundation. “Congregation” is at St Mary Magdalene’s, Paddington, from tomorrow until 7 March is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. except Sundays, when it will open between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. Admission is free. Several of the participating architects will be speaking at the exhibition on the afternoon of Saturday 29 February. For tickets and further details of the programme, visit www.architecturefoundation.org.uk.


Forthcoming Events

20 September 2021
Online book launch: Black, Gay, British, Christian, Queer
Author Jarel Robinson-Brown in conversation with Rev. Winnie Varghese.

25 September 2021
Festival of Faith and Literature: Food for the Journey
With Stephen Cottrell, Peter Stanford, Lucy Winkett, and Rowan Williams.

More events

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