With a pair of new housing blocks and some conversions, Matthew Lloyd Architects has thrown a listed church a lifeline
‘On the opening day of the Olympics I evicted 27 squatters,’ confides Father Reuben Preston, vicar of St Mary of Eton. When he arrived at the church, this intrusive use of its spaces was impeding the parish in its wider role of serving the community: something had to be done.
Founded by a mission of the private school Eton College to the poor of the East End, the grand brick church has stood on this area of Hackney Wick since it was tightly terraced slums in the 19th century, through post war prefab, during the hopefulness of sixties high rise and the pragmatic homeliness of dinky eighties housing to the development optimism that accompanied London 2012.
In place of those squatters the church now has 27 new homes flanking the church’s remarkably solid walls – like fortifications. The deal will certainly help keep the Church going a little longer, as might rental from the new community spaces alongside it. But to understand the form you need to go back to how the complex originally grew around the church, the tower alongside built a little later fronting Eastway, the vicarage, verger’s cottage and two mission halls. They were set around a small deep courtyard, behind them the cut and covered south bound lanes of the A12 and tracks of London Overground.
Matthew Lloyd Architects came to the project with a number of well-regarded church schemes under its belt. Some were small, carving out a crypt space for the community for example, while at the Heart of Bow, less than a mile from St Mary of Eton, the practice had designed an eye catching tulipwood ark floating inside the shell of the church. In Hackney Wick it was being asked by the Parochial Church Council and a developer to make better use of the land and throw a lifeline to the grade II* listed church (funds dedicated to this took the place of providing affordable housing in the contract). Lloyd identified three plots on church land onto which have been squeezed two blocks of housing and the vicarage. The historic mission hall has also been turned into characterful flats.
With higher blocks by other developers sprouting along the railway line, architect Matthew Lloyd says it wasn’t planning restrictions that defined the six storey height, but composition. It had to be subservient to the tower on one side and the roof above the nave on the other. Likewise, he thought of the brick work as a composition and one that would give a better sense of the new build. ‘They are two quite aggressive towers next to listed buildings,’ he admits. He went about this in the most pragmatic way possible, expecting the job to go design and build – although the practice was unexpectedly employed right through to completion. Lloyd realised that the (slightly harsh) red brick would not have the ‘liveliness and detail to complement the church’; instead, with a fleeting reference to polychromy, he offered a ‘balancing’ detail of a diamond pattern of white and blue glazed bricks. The reconstituted stone window architraves play an equally important role in giving the buildings some sense of articulation and gravitas and does elevate them over the standard developer’s fare. Probably the least convincing element is the over-framed two-storey glazed link building that allows the first residential tower to stand proud of the church tower.
Despite a long gestation since the original 2009 planning application and two changes of developer, when the flats went on the market in 2014 they all sold off plan. Planner Fiona Sibley was one of those who bought that evening. Going up to her flat through a narrow courtyard alongside the buttressed walls of the church, the plainness of the common spaces behind the handsomely detailed wooden gates impresses itself upon you. Inside, the cuts and complexities of the flanking facade to the south start to make sense – both preventing overlooking and admitting light. Bits of roof are grabbed for terraces and there is certainly a pride in living here, tangible as Sibley hands over her card imprinted with facade drawings on one side and brick pattern on the other. For those still seeking a pad in Hackney Wick there is one more part of the puzzle to complete, the five storey flat climbing up into the church tower – an unexpected bonus that developer Thornsett managed to eke out of the project.
At the centre of the cluster is the courtyard, with a box-edged green overlooked by the old vicarage garage which has been turned into a unit that might end up as a café. It is remarkable to think that vehicles used to drive in here under the tower, vans scraping the soft limestone of the arch. With the entrances to most of the flats, the vicarage tucked away at the back, and the church entrance behind newly cleaned brickwork this is the natural, if shady, social centre of both the church and apartments. A new entrance on the south side of the church alongside the car park – for brides and bodies, jokes the Father Preston – leads into a small community room and the church itself. The nave itself has been reordered: the rood screen rolled back to the line of the church before its later extension to create a large community space in the body of the building, and tall cupboards for regular users in the aisles standing ready to be filled. For this is a church that needs filling. A dentistry practice has taken the unit out front. But for Father Preston the task of ensuring the other spaces get used and working hangs heavy. Meanwhile he leans on the Churches Conservation Trust and the hope of help so he can return to more pastoral work and the high church robes that lie smooth in the new vestment drawers of his vestry.
Client: PCC of St Mary of Eton & St Augustine & Thornsett Group
Contractor: PJ Hegarty & Sons (UK)
Archtect: Matthew Lloyd Architects
Environmental / M&E engineer: EDC – Engineering Design Consultants
Structural engineer: Manhire Associates Consulting Engineers
Project management: Roder Levitt Bucknall
Stone and brick restoration Stonewest
Brickwork subcontractor Callan
Windows Rationel Windows
Kitchens Steelplan Kitchens (church)
Eurobath Kitchens (residential)
Tiling Strata Tiles
Joinery Chigwell Joinery
Precast concrete floors and stairs
Balustrades Frixos Metal Works
Total contract cost £6,500,000
GIFA cost per m2 £1848
Area in m2 3517
CODE 5 for vicarage
CODE 3 for new apartments
Form of contract Design & build