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Feilden Fowles makes light work at Carlisle Cathedral

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Words:
Eleanor Young

In creating an airy café, Feilden Fowles has modernised the Medieval and let the sun back into Carlisle Cathedral’s ancient Fratry

Carlisle Cathedral lost its monastery to dissolution under Henry VIII, and stones from its nave were seized during the English Civil War to shore up the outsize Carlisle Castle. In the 19th century its Fratry hall had a makeover, first from Robert Smirke then by GE Street – who added a porch and lowered the door turning it back to front. The 20th century contributed extensive tarmacking around the cathedral precinct, among the standing ruins of the monastery cloister. 

Cathedral visitors in the 21st century could marvel at the off centre gothic nave and the historic arches that have settled on soft ground into gravity-defying mishapes. But getting a cup of tea, that essential visitor experience, meant descending awkwardly into the crypt of the Fratry.

This was the problem that Feilden Fowles’ competition winning scheme had to solve, along with creating a space for education and reinvigorating the hall of the Fratry, once the monks’ refectory. The practice proposed a new, stripped-back modern pavilion, connected to the Fratry by a glazed link replacing Street’s porch, and with the historic doorway raised 1.7m to the level of the hall, to allow another entrance accessing the crypt to be punched into the wall below. 

Making the case for removing the porch on this grade I listed building wasn’t too difficult – entry had previously taken people past the loos and kitchens; a new entrance was undeniably needed. But it was the local campaign on the style of the pavilion that nudged the practice into developing it beyond the rectilinear precast concrete colonnade. The rounded dropped arch of the cathedral’s west window provided a model. 

The taller link building unlocks the Fratry’s two levels while the pavilion spreads generously into the cathedral precinct.
The taller link building unlocks the Fratry’s two levels while the pavilion spreads generously into the cathedral precinct. Credit: Peter Cook

The purity of precise lines of the CNC-cut red Loccharbrigs sandstone and the elegance and lightness of these arches make this pavilion, giving it a quality that throws the rounded sandstone of the ruins into gentle relief. If you want to – and I do – you can also read into it a certain PoMo sense of fun, taking historic references and playing with them. So the keystone is done away with (as on the Smirke door), and the coping stones deliberately misaligned so drips don’t automatically head for joints; solid stone is shaved to slender as it meets large panes of glass. Each arch is displayed in a rectilinear frame. The scalloped corners do a spirited little curve into themselves that suggests a religious niche, though the coping continues on into the corner with the straight lines of modernity. 

For the cathedral dean Mark Boyling it was important that the new building was welcoming, as the very solid walls of the Fratry could never be. The pavilion touches the ground lightly with plenty of views in. Its stone arches are self-supporting but the building’s openness comes down to the steel frames that also keep the café column free. The steel beams are tapered to give a thin leading edge – their depth hidden in the cleanly detailed zinc roof. The new link intensifies the rhythm on the fenestration and is crowned by a diagrid ceiling. As you mount the steps to the Fratry hall, this diagrid draws up your gaze from the hard-working connecting space with its scissor lift, stairs and a chunk of boxed-in concrete to stabilise the base of the Fratry’s mediaeval rubble wall (mitigating against the unknown effects of a Roman drain). 

  • The arches of the undercroft set off by a concrete floor with walls lined by benches.
    The arches of the undercroft set off by a concrete floor with walls lined by benches. Credit: Peter Cook
  • Cleared out and cleaned up, the hall of the Fratry.
    Cleared out and cleaned up, the hall of the Fratry. Credit: Peter Cook
  • In the link the visible diagrid structure  above prepares you for the grand space of the Fratry.
    In the link the visible diagrid structure above prepares you for the grand space of the Fratry. Credit: Peter Cook
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It is easy to concentrate on the new building but the Fratry itself has seen significant change. The hall was cold, dark and broken up says Boyling. Tall bookshelves designed by Smirke had been moved to one end to create a draught lobby and the windows were shrouded with curtains to protect the 1600s book collection from sunlight. It seems hard to believe, with light flooding in to the beautiful simple interior, its timber floor warm with new varnish. Adding a UV film to the glass doors of the bookcases allowed the windows to be uncovered, the shelves now range along one wall and, with heating and audiovisual, it’s a great place for the city. The dean is relieved it hasn’t succumbed to the conferencisation that plagues so many venues with ugly stacking chairs. ‘We wanted to bring back the spaces to their original grandeur,’ says project architect Ingrid Petit. It is part of the success of the project that it feels like this is how they are meant to be seen. 

In the newly accessible space beneath the crypt, crumbling foundation stones have been hidden behind built-in benches running along the wall over the new concrete floor, while a cupboard and sink allow it to operate as an education room – although over the summer it also became an extra café space. Throughout there is a demonstration of clear pragmatic thinking about operation ranged against the limits of history and the cathedral precinct, and translated into simple, beautifully executed moves. With a café that bakes its own cakes the kitchen area could have taken a large slice of the pavilion but instead it is more of a servery – with baking and more complex preparation elsewhere in the cathedral precinct – leaving plenty of space for tables, even set at Covid regulation distance. Loos are at a premium so there are more at different levels. The team benefited from the experience of lay canon Bryan Gray who is behind welcoming service stations such as Gloucester Services, designed by Glenn Howells, and could closely advise on catering and loo capacity as well as provide a expert client hand at tricky moments.

  • The textures of lime plaster and terrazzo soften the clean lines of the pavilion.
    The textures of lime plaster and terrazzo soften the clean lines of the pavilion. Credit: Peter Cook
  • The café opened when lockdown eased in summer and the courtyard was in full use.
    The café opened when lockdown eased in summer and the courtyard was in full use. Credit: Peter Cook
  • The servery has been kept small.
    The servery has been kept small. Credit: Peter Cook
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This is Feilden Fowles’ first heritage project and it shows the same dedication and calm inventiveness that the practice has applied to its studio and Oasis Farm Waterloo, and to the Stirling shortlisted Weston at Yorkshire Sculpture Park. In the cathedral precinct, the reinvigorated Fratry extends its gentle influence beyond its walls with a café courtyard and new planting. It makes for a breathing space from the shops and arcades of the city, and a chance for the cathedral to extend its welcome in a very accessible and elegant way. It bodes well for the next chapter of the cathedral’s life in the city. 

IN NUMBERS 

Total contract cost £2.4m 
GIFA cost per m2: new build, refurbishment and conservation £2982 
Area (existing) 650m² 
Area (new) 185m² 

Credits

Architect Feilden Fowles 
Client Carlisle Cathedral
Structural engineer Structure workshop
M&E consultant BCA
Quantity surveyor, project manager, CDM co-ordinator FWP
Approved building inspector Carlisle City Council
Main contractor Cubby Construction 
CAD software used Powerdraft
Surveyor of the fabric  Buttress Architect 
Concept landscape architect Petherick, Urquhart and Hunt
Conservation structural engineer Stand Engineers
Archaeology Cumbria Archaeology

Suppliers

Windows, doors and curtain walling (pavilion and link) Janisol and Viss Hi, Schuco 
Bronze link structure Victoria John of London
Standing seam zinc roofing (pavilion and link) Rheinzink / Hempstock (installer)
Lift (link) Premier Lifts
Floors (undercroft, link and pavilion) HTC Superfloor, Set in Stone Flooring
Acoustic ceiling  (pavilion) Autex Cube Savoye
Lime plaster (pavilion walls), Regency lime plaster Red Umber Mike Wye

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