Níall McLaughlin wove together many stories to produce his Bishop Edward King Chapel near Oxford. The result is a lofty, sublime and utterly peaceful space of worship
At the heart of Ripon College’s new Bishop Edward King Chapel in Cuddesdon, Oxfordshire, lies a steely pragmatism that belies the faith, poems and fables that gave rise to it. Sister Mary Stephen belongs to the venerable order of nearby Begbroke Priory, whose move to Ripon precipitated an RIBA competition for a new chapel in the 150 year old GE Street-designed Anglican seminary. She voices her only concern about Níall McLaughlin’s completed design. ‘There’s no lock on his tabernacle, so we can’t keep the sacrament in it,’ she says, referring to the precious brass and oak cube that sits in one of two niches that protrude from the chapel’s elliptical wall. ‘Consecrated hosts have a high value with Satanists on the black market, you see.’ I nod; although I didn’t know. She attributes this to ‘a specification oversight’. This woman with her eyes to heaven seems to have her feet planted firmly on the ground.
But there’s no questioning the positive effect of McLaughlin’s £2.6m chapel on the picturesque Ripon College, both functionally and aesthetically, which supplants its old first floor chapel to make it accessible for the six incoming Priory sisters. Its final form was the result of clear cognisance of the practical needs of congregation and worship, sublimated to higher levels via tales and metaphors generated by the architect himself. ‘One needs stories to bring ideas into being,’ says McLaughlin, with the proviso, ‘but the resulting volumes have to work purely on their own terms.’
So what were the stories? From the client side at competition stage, an accessible ‘Christ-centred and outward looking’ space with ‘gravity and mystery’; one that could promote ‘personal prayer, communal worship and lesser offices by the sisters’, with sacristy and storage. McLaughlin’s first story came from an early visit to the client. Vice principal, the Revd. Dr Mark Chapman, described their desire for two centres to the chapel, ‘one for the word and one for the sacrament’ in an ‘antiphonal arrangement’ that resembled ‘more a chancel than a church’ ie with the faithful facing each other. ‘In describing it, they gestured with their arms out in parallel and curved them in to touch at the ends, and it was a physical image I took away with me,’ says McLaughlin.
This memory was crucial to the design. From these embracing arms were hung woven stories of fishermen on Galilee, poems of heavenly boats with anchors snagging on earthly altars, and intimations of gatherings in sunken spaces beneath a dappled canopy of trees. Revd. Chapman remembers how the submission stood out. ‘Niall put in all this stuff about coracles and copses but beneath it all we could see this elongated oval shape,’ he recalls. ‘We could see the notion of gathering but with two distinct ends to the space with its lofty wooden arches that set it apart, giving, for us, the feel of a truly ecclesiastical space. With light coming in from the clerestory it seemed awe-inspiring.’ It was unanimously declared winner.
As you enter the college – here a cluster of ashlar stone neo-gothic buildings set loosely around an ancient beech – a crisp elliptical form with adjacent orthogonal sacristy now closes the view to the valley beyond. McLaughlin first made the chapel’s upper facade of ‘woven’ timber, referencing Gottfried Semper’s ‘enclosure’ concept in his 1851 ‘Four Elements of Architecture.’ But on revisiting, he saw this as too literal and opted instead for a curved wall of staggered dogtooth Clipsham stone, smooth on one face, broken on the other. Counterpointing the ashlar stone at ground level, this more sophisticated facade links directly to the existing buildings, and allows shadows to play on its richer surface throughout the day.
The ellipse, on consideration, seems an obvious choice, given the dual focus the client had requested. I thought of Peter Zumthor’s 1989 St Benedict Chapel, perhaps prompted by the timber belfry, but McLaughlin claims Rudolf Schwarz’s 1954 Chapel of St Michael in Frankfurt as both his and Zumthor’s precedent. He says Schwarz’s design, with thin buttresses supporting its high walls on the outside, was almost nihilistically ‘looking for the emptiness at the heart of the church’s interior’. Zumthor, he claims, tried to make amends by bringing his timber structure back into the line of his timber walls. McLaughlin sees his move of bringing the columns inside the walls and supporting the roof independent of them as ‘a natural progression’ structure; back in the fold, so to speak; although he doesn’t add whether it amounts to any reconciliation of Man and God.
It’s strange to see an elliptical CofE chapel, the form being more associated with the great Catholic baroque works of Borromini’s San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane and Bernini’s Sant’Andrea al Quirinale in Rome. McLaughlin puts this down to the dual foci of altar and lectern but he tips his hat to them both: for dramatic effect, Borromini entered from the long axis, and Bernini from the short. Here, the architect enters deferentially between the two.
It is a master stroke. To enter a small, enclosed calm, white, light space of stained timber columns that morph into diagonal beams supporting a high ceiling above a tall stone clerestory is a pleasure, but to be denied the full joy of understanding by not entering on axis strikes me as more catholic than the Italians. Here, McLaughlin’s ‘clearing in the woods’ is initially hidden by trees, the columns’ trunks turning into boughs via a form of kinked entasis. Views are partial and eccentric, and it’s only through moving on axis that the true simplicity of the thinking becomes clear, the columns symmetrically arranged around the space, the altar and lectern revealing themselves as its foci. Walking around the ambulatory behind the formed white concrete seating, the space morphs constantly as the structure, widens and narrows. The niches – a residue of the fact that the ellipse was originally enclosed with a box (how baroque is that?) – punch out the walls to create intimate prayer space for the sisters, light streaming down its walls, the contemplative picture window and seat facing out to the valley, and the niche for the tabernacle. In the silence, broken by nothing but the rustling of treetops through the stone fins of the clerestory, it’s lovely to sit for a while and watch the sunlight play across the walls and columns. On occasion, the curved clerestory glass casts rainbows. Sound echoes up to the light.
Sister Mary thinks the rainbows are about the space ‘giving back to those who helped create it’; and that the ambulatory around the pews was inspired, adding, ‘We have families at Ripon and the kids can run around, it as they do, without disturbing the service’. Revd. Chapman notes how fine the acoustics are for singing and instruments, and appreciates that, depending which side of the altar he stands, the priest can address either a small tight group or a packed chapel. Set within the fine joinery of the vestry is a single seat for the priest with another picture window looking out south past the vicarage. A space for pre-service contemplation? ‘Yes,’ says Ripon’s development director Sophie Farrant, ‘Although there’s a power socket beside it if you want to use your iPad…’
Ultimately, one has to ask if the client’s needs for a larger religious space, allowing different modes of worship and providing for the equivalence of Word and sacrament, would have produced a comparable transcendent, sublime architectural volume without the metaphors that informed it. But I think not; and Jesus himself, with his parables, knew the value of a good story. ‘It’s what we dreamed of but didn’t think we would get,’ says Farrant. Ah, the power of prayer…