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Review of ‘Sacred Spaces’

8 December 2013

David Frazer Lewis

Altared Perceptions: A London symposium sets an agenda for the interdisciplinary study of British twentieth-century church design

Review of :

‘Sacred Spaces,’ A symposium on twentieth century British church design convened by the Twentieth Century Society and Docomomo UK, 30 November 2013, London.

Many of Britain’s twentieth century churches were built in the suburbs, and many of them are increasingly under threat. As Catherine Croft, director of the Twentieth Century Society, has pointed out recently, although people are quick to rally to the defence of older churches, twentieth century worship spaces are often seen as expendable. Post-war churches are particularly unloved. Few congregations embrace the idea of worshiping in a building that looks like Preston Bus Station. Yet Brutalist churches can be important works of cultural heritage, and many radical churches from across the century, from Giles Gilbert Scott’s St Alphege’s, Bath, to George Pace’s St Teilo, Caereithin, have become well-loved features of their local communities.

Churches from 1920 onwards have long been understudied, but this is changing rapidly. While nominally focused on architectural history, what made the conference truly successful was that it moved beyond the traditional boundaries of the discipline, with speakers addressing the links of twentieth-century British church design to urban planning, theology, and contemporary design practice. The conference sold out in advance — an unusual occurrence for an architectural history symposium, and one that indicates the widespread interest in this field. The climate of the discussion was enriched by the rare and stimulating mix of constituencies represented in the audience: scholars and heritage professionals were gathered together with architects, priests, monks, nuns, and interested members of the public.

A primary aim of the symposium was to create new scholarly resources for the study of British church designs. Recordings of many of the talks will be available on the website of the Twentieth Century Society, and an edited collection of essays emerging from the symposium will also be published.

Churches had a problematic status within the rise of International Modernism. Could a church design be rational? What exactly was the ‘function’ of a church? The answers posited were many — some architects felt that the role of a church was to evoke appropriate emotion; others to accommodate liturgies; others even simply to provide the most economical and flexible meeting space. This question was woven throughout the papers. The first session particularly focused on this question, with Alan Powers exploring the theories of H S Goodhart-Rendel, Judi Loach examining George Pace’s concept of the ideal modernist church, and my own paper exploring the theory of developmental tradition in the work of Giles Gilbert Scott.

Another theme that emerged was craft, which seems to have always been seen as central to church practice in Britain, regardless of style. The talks on H. S. Goodhart-Rendel, George Pace, and Giles Gilbert Scott all drew attention to the role of artist-architect collaboration in British church design all the way through the mid-century. Judi Loach interestingly quoted Pace’s claim that ‘the artist should be an extension of my mind,’ working within the architect’s broader vision of the church. This treatment of the church as a work of art took on a different tenor in the next panel, in which Otto Saumarez Smith explored the way that historic churches were given new settings by post-war urban planners. He focused particularly on Frederick Gibberd’s town plans, and the treatment of churches as art objects for contemplation rather than sites of worship or pilgrimage. These plans, he said, almost never made reference to a church’s use or community role. Robert Proctor introduced a series of postwar churches that were essentially space frames, divided up for different uses by movable screens. In reaction to craft-focused church design, some of the churches presented by Proctor instead borrowed the highly technical language of circuitry positing the church as flexible and economical use of space. Niall McLaughlin, architect of the new chapel for Ripon Theological College in Cuddesdon, Oxfordshire, (shortlisted for this year’s RIBA Stirling Prize) gave a paper on his own exquisitely crafted chapel and its inspirations in the work of Semper and Schwarz.

National versus international contexts was another theme, brought out particularly in Adrian Forty’s paper, ‘Are British Churches European?’, a philosophical exploration of the nature of church building, and in Flora Samuel’s paper on British responses to Ronchamp. Samuel suggested that few British architects understood what Le Corbusier was doing at Ronchamp and tended to reject it as anti-rational. Forty suggested that British churches were more often treated as free-standing sculptural objects, rather than directly related to the urban fabric.

This led Timothy Brittain-Catlin to observe that in contrast with their Continental and Irish peers, British critics and architects seldom talk about spirituality in churches and in fact go to great lengths to avoid it, sticking only to formal and pragmatic terms. He suggested that this was the product of a national tendency to avoid personal subjects and potential embarrassment, and he wondered to what extent this sidelining of their primary purpose distorted British analysis of church designs. His observation fed back into the theme of craft, as he asked if instead of works of spirituality, the British tend to treat churches as works of fine art.

Kate Jordan and Ayla Lepine’s short papers acted as a counterpoint to Brittain-Catlin’s comments, presenting respectively two London monastic churches: the Church of Christ the King, Cockfosters (1940) and All Saints, Colney, (1927) both of which considered the spiritual role of the architecture in a very direct manner, the first by being designed and built by the religious community themselves (and carefully designed to accommodate Liturgical Movement ideas), and the second through the close involvement of the Mother Superior with the intensely spiritual rhetoric of her architect, Ninian Comper.

Louise Campbell’s keynote explored the reactions of artists and the public to the bombing of British churches during World War II and the multi-layered debate surrounding their use for propagandistic and artistic purposes. Frances Spalding concluded the symposium with a reflection on the role of the Liturgical Movement in midcentury British churches, skilfully weaving in the themes that had emerged throughout the day.

The conference organizers, Ayla Lepine and Kate Jordan, are to be commended for what was an agenda-setting conference, pointing the way to richer interdisciplinary approaches in the study of twentieth century churches and for gathering together a collection of high quality material on the subject. They have laid the foundation for further discussion and drawn attention to the wide interest and excitement that surrounds this field. It is hoped that the resources emerging from the symposium will have a wide impact.

David Frazer Lewis is a DPhil student in Art History at St John’s College, Oxford.

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