Architectural ghosts remain alongside modern interventions at a restored dockyard church turned community and business centre
There is something of Berlin’s Neues Museum about the Sheerness Dockyard Church, despite its liminal location on north Kent’s Isle of Sheppey, a place of marshland and sprawling industry. But bear with me. It shares the same celebration of a previously badly damaged and patched interior, carefully stabilised and offset with sympathetic but clearly new structures. There is also the same kind of collaborative architect pairing to highlight conservation skills: instead of David Chipperfield with Julian Harrap at the Neues, it is the respective firms of Hugh Broughton with Martin Ashley, their third joint project.
Broughton’s work is interestingly varied, his portfolio including polar outposts following his walking-cityish Halley VI Antarctic Research Station of 2013, new buildings in unusual historic contexts such as his 2016 Portland Gallery at Welbeck Abbey in Nottinghamshire, and more conventional conservation work. The Dockyard Church is somewhat in the Welbeck mould.
Masterminded by the Sheerness Dockyard Preservation Trust chaired by Will Palin, and made possible by the Heritage Fund, this displays a very British, SPAB-influenced approach: give all the clues to the history of the building, including its partial destruction and rebuilding, in its visible fabric rather than restoring it internally to a particular period of its existence or doing a riff on a selected element of its surviving style, as (for instance) Caruso St John did at Tate Britain.
In the case of the late Georgian (1828) Dockyard Church by George Ledwell Taylor, this makes sense not so much aesthetically – I happen to like this approach but that will always be a choice, and subject for debate – as because the use has changed. This is no longer a church, but a community centre and co-working space with museum elements. New uses in old churches can often seem visually uneasy. But since this place had been reduced to a roofless shell in a fierce fire of 2001, and then left for years to decay further, open to the elements, the rebuilders had a freer hand than usual. Broughton puts it like this: ‘We restored the exterior back to its 1828 form, and on the inside conserved everything as found, leaving ghosts of its former use.’
Those ghosts, when it comes to the masonry and fragments of plasterwork, are veiled in a thick pale distemper (again reminiscent of the unifying coating that Chipperfield calls ‘slurry’ at the Neues Museum). Of the two stone cantilevered stairs raising from the entrance lobby to the gallery level, one has been faithfully rebuilt in the same manner, the other left as broken fragments projecting from the wall. A new timber-tread spiral stair at the north-west corner provides the necessary escape route. No lift, as all facilities other than extra floorspace are at ground level.
The heights of the new structures on either side of the nave are dictated by the gallery level of the former church. The cast-iron columns, dating from the 1880s following an earlier fire, survived the 2001 conflagration but the exposed hollow fluted ones on the upper level were badly weakened: the originally plaster-encased utilitarian vertical iron girders of the lower level were sound. The lower ones now look very modern as revealed and painted while the upper ones are the most solid of ghosts, there primarily for conservation reasons. The new steel-flitched glulam roof structure above them actually spans from wall to wall.
It helped the conversion work that this is a nobly proportioned structure, a simple and broad Greek Revival rectilinear box with round-topped windows including a Serliana at the east end. There is none of the stifling churchiness you can get with narrow naves and the pointed arches of the neo-Gothic tendency. The levels match the windows, although a delicate mesh-floored access bridge (needed for fire escape reasons) spans in front of the Serliana, with shorter companions bridging to the gallery level on each side, so making a circuit.
That great window originally lit the sanctuary, unusually at the west end because the church stands just outside the dockyard wall at this point, grid-aligned with the naval officer housing it served, including the Naval Terrace alongside. Its muscular Ionic portico and rather weaker two-stage tower face eastwards. Original stone paving to the sanctuary survives, as does the differently-patterned stone aisle running down the centre of the nave. To either side there is now a polished concrete floor with heating elements beneath. Below that, the church is supported on its original inverted brick arches which themselves sit on a forest of timber piles, like the other buildings of the dockyard in the estuarial marshes.
From the outside the church adopts its original form before the changes of the first post-fire rebuild in the late 19th century. Its lost Roman-rendered parapets, apparent in original drawings and early photographs, have returned. Its tower, dangerously unsafe after the 2001 fire, has been carefully rebuilt, incorporating original ashlar sandstone.
On stepping in, the first thing that strikes you is how light it is. Broughton augments the daylight from the clear-glazed reinstated windows with a central row of circular rooflights where there would originally have been ventilator grates. The enclosed meeting rooms at ground level make use of this through part-obscured glass walls: there is also a café on the southern side, and a rotating display of sections of the incredibly detailed Great Model of the dockyard itself as laid out by the John Rennies, father and son. The timber-slat ceilings have acoustic backing: despite all the other hard surfaces, there is no clatter or echo here. Ventilation is natural, with the tower acting as a ventilation chimney when necessary.
It is an uplifting space in a secular sense now, also a self-explanatory one: the interior is an assemblage of meticulously made parts set against those ghosted walls. There was debate as to the colours, especially of the metalwork. And yes, they defaulted to a warm grey rather than an oxide red, Rogers yellow or whatever, but it works. The miracle is that it happened at all. True, it was a good building to start with – Ledwell Taylor, a navy surveyor responsible for many of the buildings in the 24-ha dockyard site, was no slouch – but its location counted against it, despite being grade II* listed and on Historic England’s ‘Heritage At Risk’ register. The advocacy of the Trust, its members representing invaluable experience of earlier battles to save London’s Spitalfields, eventually won the day.
Outside, trucks rumble in and out of what has since 1960 been a commercial port. Stacks of banana-ripening containers flank the road approaching the church. This may not be the Antarctic but it is a remarkable arrival in a pretty extreme industrial environment, and probably the most unusual business incubator you’re likely to find anywhere. Floreat Sheerness!
Construction cost £9.5m
Reclaimed cast-iron columns 15
New circular skylights 4
Client: Sheerness Dockyard Preservation Trust
Architects: Hugh Broughton Architects with Martin Ashley Architects (conservation)
Main contractor: Coniston Construction
Structural engineer: Hockley & Dawson
Services engineer: Harley Haddow
Cost consultant: PT Projects
Project manager: Glevum Consulting
Acoustic consultant: Ramboll Acoustics
Lighting designer: Sutton Vane Associates