J N Comper, high altar, All Saints, London Colney, 1924-28, 1945-47 (image: John East)
Earlier in November, the National Churches Trust announced the winner of the best post-1953 church in Britain. Maguire and Murray’s St Paul’s, Bow Common, has taken the top prize. With its subtle use of glass, brick and concrete, its deceptively simple geometrical masses, and its light-suffused high altar surrounded nuanced ripples of threshold spaces forming concentric zones of intimacy, the church is one of the most interesting and innovative in Europe. The congregation is welcomed from the street into a renewed unity with God and one another. St Paul’s was designed with local specificity and international theological and architectural change simultaneously in mind.
This event felt timely to me, as it took place in the run-up to a major London conference on church architecture I’ve been co-organising for nearly a year. Very few days have gone by where I haven’t thought about the minor and major elements of the event, from numbers of photocopies and tea bags to how the day might be shaped and shepherded to sustain both broad and focused dialogue between scholars and the public on why modern churches look the way they do, the diversity of theological and architectural positions sustained and developed in the twentieth century, and how a microcosmic case-study might sit alongside a more macro theoretical epistemological view.
On 30 November, Kate Jordan and I convened Sacred Spaces in Modern Britain, a conference supported by the Twentieth Century Society, DOCOMOMO UK, and the Society of Architectural Historians of Great Britain. This event that drew together eminent and emerging international experts on church architecture in Britain post-1900 as part of a series of activities Kate and I work on together that generate collaborative events and research publications focused on monastic and convent art and architecture, ecumenism, gendered religious spaces, and community-focused design in nineteenth and twentieth-century Britain. The project has included a conference on art, architecture and material culture for the Histories of Women Religious in Britain and Ireland group (2013), a Society of Architectural Historians annual conference session on architecture for modern religious communities (2013), an edited book with Pickering and Chatto developed from the SAH session (forthcoming 2014), a research initiative with partners at Kent University and Royal Holloway and advisory support from English Heritage, the V&A, and RIBA, and a study day on nineteenth-century monasteries and convents from Pugin to G. F. Bodley hosted in collaboration with the Victorian Society (2012). Sacred Spaces in Modern Britain was a sold out event and it is clear that a demand for continued research, education, campaigns and publications on modern religious architecture in the UK is very high.
The day opened with David Lewis on Giles Gilbert Scott and experimental traditionalism, Alan Powers on Harry Stuart Goodhart-Rendel, and Judi Loach on George Pace’s designs in Wales. Robert Proctor reflected on flexible church spaces in relation to the technical culture of laboratories, circuitry and cybernetics in the 1960s and 70s, and Otto Saumarez Smith explicated the problematic siting of churches within and outside modern city precincts. The day also included reflections on heritage from Linda Monckton, the UK in a European context from Adrian Forty and Karla Britton, Flora Samuel’s assessment of Le Corbusier’s impact on British churches (and on George Pace in particular, who really ‘got it’), and a duo of papers by Kate and me exploring a Vita et Pax movement monastery in Cockfosters and a convent church in London Colney. The latter is, unfortunately, under threat; as a conference audience of over 100 people discussed the importance of studying and preserving religious architecture, many of the buildings we focused on remain in need of further research, advocacy, and attention.
The day’s tone shifted with architect Niall McLaughlin’s presentation of the design process for Bishop Edward King Chapel at Cuddesdon near Oxford. Its intricate mathematics interlaced with a candid, open-hearted overview of how the building came to be and how the firm responded to the brief. Gottfried Semper, Rudoph Schwarz and Peter Zumthor’s ideas and structures helped to sustain this new building’s vision. Images emerged, rotated, mutated, stretched, and cohered: an ellipse, an eye, two cupped hands, a chalice, and a building sensitive to the deeply sacramental theology of the Anglican nuns who gave it and use it daily as well as the theological college’s students whose own spiritual practice is especially engaged with the Word.
Louise Campbell’s keynote lecture focused on the Second World War and differing responses to conflict at Coventry and Canterbury. An array of solutions to the prospect of ‘England lapsing into spiritual blackness’ in the face of grief, confusion and loss made for provocative and uncannily beautiful images. John Piper’s abstract burst of hopeful light in Coventry’s baptistery window contrasted starkly with a 1939 photograph of the nave of Canterbury Cathedral covered in heavy heaps of earth as a preventative measure to save the medieval crypt from bomb damage.
Themes of flexibility, innovation, tradition, and the Liturgical Movement’s importance in Britain were brought home in a final reflection on modern sacred art and architecture by Frances Spalding. From Liverpool’s Roman Catholic Cathedral to Ronchamp, we were asked to think again about how bodies move through space, how light is sculpted, why materiality matters, and how architecture brings us closer to the divine in ways both subtle and bold.
John Piper (designer) and Patrick Reyntiens (maker), Baptistry Window, Coventry Cathedral, 1962
My introductory remarks at the conference included a claim made by Karsten Harries in a recent book on contemporary religious architecture, Constructing the Ineffable: ‘architecture needs the sacred if it is not to wither.’ When the painter William Townsend witnessed Canterbury Cathedral’s service of thanksgiving following WWII, he positioned himself in the triforium. The painting he produced recalled the sensation of what it was like to ‘sit up there in the world of architecture.’ The twentieth-century buildings discussed at Sacred Spaces in Modern Britain are unique architectural worlds, all responding differently to the same sacred impulse.