A new building inserted into a restored Victorian church makes the best of the old structure while providing a community space
The fundamental problem with conserving churches is that the very space that you most wish to preserve is the one that most often has to be sacrificed for a new use. In Bolton the 1880-81 parish church of All Souls fell on hard times long ago. Closed since 1986 yet still a strong physical presence in this community, its hilltop position ensured that even in dereliction it rivalled its neighbouring green roofed mosque for prominence. But precedents are few and far between.
Many churches are sliced by new floors and then chopped up into little rooms for housing, others partitioned off to provide loos, meeting spaces and the cellular paraphernalia that are the concomitants of modern use. But All Souls is looked after by the Churches Conservation Trust so ensuring that the grand nave of this grade II* listed building could still be appreciated was essential. The Garden Museum and Matthew Lloyd’s ‘ark’ St Paul’s Old Ford, both in London, perhaps suggested a way. Manchester based OMI was selected in competition for the modern insertion, and worked alongside Alan Gardner and Associates which oversaw the historic repair. It is not gimmicky but it is subtle in the way the new volumes work with the historic church.
So first things first: yes, OMI did have to insert a series of cellular spaces into the nave (although the loos have been tucked in to the old north door lobby). The plan is for a specially set up local social enterprise to run All Souls as a community centre with workspaces, café, exhibition and small conference suite for local use and perhaps businesses in Manchester too. Critically, these also have to help pay the upkeep. Imagining a building within a building, OMI has kept the insertion clear of the church fabric. While its design sits on both sides of the nave it is split along the aisle, only bridges interrupting the length of the church and the views of its lofty timbered ceiling.
Just as the solid majesty of All Souls amid the tight terraced streets surprises, so too does the entry into the building with a sudden opening up of the volume. Stepping up lightly from the entrance is a staircase embedded in a plinth of reclaimed floorboards. Over the open café space sits the largest volume – a large seminar room that looks out, gloriously, to the old altar and the stained glass of the east window. Turn off the lights and you could be in the eye of a camera. Alternatively, pull down the screen and you are ready for a perfectly delivered Powerpoint, albeit in a non-orthogonal room.
Much of the pleasure of this reworked church is in the way the circulation displays the building to you, confronting you with leaded windows, revealing the balcony of the bell loft, encouraging you to step out to peer around the new building back to the altar on a little steel plate. Looping through the first floor rooms is something the practice saw as a visitor experience – it likes to walk people through its buildings, to tell them an architectural story. But this can be complex and insecure in a lightly staffed building that’s open to all comers, so in its current form, with the stairs roped off, it seems unlikely that many visitors will get to enjoy this tour.
And unfortunately the effort put into these small things makes the whole harder to read, the cuts and complexities messier. It is not helped by the few grand gestures OMI threw in. An interruptive vertical fin and a surface of shiny golden shingles, facing the altar but cladding the escape stair, seem to be cheaply trying to claw back some of the glory from the church; continuing the understatement and subtlety of other elements would have made a stronger piece. But volumetrically, with its asymmetrical section, this is an interesting and intelligent design. The Churches Conservation Trust – which it is entrusted with over 340 churches – sees this project as a model for redundant inner city churches. It should be.
Project cost: £4.9m
Construction contract cost: £3m
New build only, GIFA: 324m2
Including existing church, GIFA: 1168m2
GIFA cost per m2 including existing church: £2,568/m2
Client: The Churches Conservation Trust & All Souls Bolton
Architect: OMI Architects
Historic building surveyor: Alan Gardner Associates
Project manager: Buro 4
M&E consultant: Hoare Lea
Structural engineer: Scott Hughes Design
Fire engineering consultant: Hoare Lea Fire
Exhibition design: Gaby Porter Associates