Plants, water and natural stone give Lynch Architects’ garden at Westminster Coroner’s Court a classical air – secular yet spiritual, grave but comforting
Coroner’s Courts are sombre places where controversial, upsetting cases are heard. Westminster Coroner’s Court, on Horseferry Road, is a solemn, grade II listed late-Victorian building. It is not large, yet it serves four London boroughs. Plans for an extension had been ongoing between Lynch Architects and the client for some time, but work on a memorial garden was precipitated in the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire of June 2017.
After that, the Court was overwhelmed with cases, and, grieving families were often exposed to media attention outside the building. Lynch Architects was asked to respond to this unacceptable situation with urgency, and the garden opened in 2018 but kept discreet and unpublished until now as planning is going in for wider changes.
The space now offers privacy and refuge to witnesses and relatives of those whose deaths are being investigated. It is safely enclosed, with a 2m gate screening out the road, helped by an existing tree. It is paved in a pale natural stone, which, combined with three square, cream-coloured concrete planters, gives an uplifting lightness. The planters double as seating, illuminated from below, giving an ethereal quality to the space at dusk. An antique limestone fountain, reclaimed from salvage, matches the pallor of the concrete; its Victorian provenance in keeping with the language of the existing building. The sound of trickling water soothes, mesmerises and cancels the intrusive noise of traffic and passers-by, animated by the rustling plants.
Elements in the garden are consciously abstract, their ambiguity allowing visitors to take from the space what they will. Distracting, or perhaps disguising the wall of the mortuary (an administrative-looking 1980s addition) is a large concrete niche, its sides textured but its interior smooth and tactile. Deliberately devoid of any characteristics, it is symbolic in its emptiness. Resembling a doorway that cannot be traversed, it was partly inspired, explains Patrick Lynch, from the impenetrable doorways of Michelangelo’s San Lorenzo Chapel in Florence. At times sunlight casts shadows so your own self appears in the niche – a memento mori. At sunset, it takes on an other-worldly, pinkish glow.
The niche continues an arch motif from throughout the court building. For example, arched window seats offered places of intimacy in an imposing public building, says Lynch; similarly, in a setting which embodies the faceless machinery of the ‘State’, the garden is a place which nurtures the individual.
The neighbourhood is home to several cathedrals – including the neo-byzantine Westminster Cathedral (1885) – and ecclesiastical references find their way onto many surrounding facades. In a nod to this history, the Trajan lettering on the niche has been cast in Perpetua, a typeface designed by Eric Gill, and who carved the Catholic cathedral’s Stations of the Cross. A building by Lutyens is visible from the courtyard, drawing an unintentional link between different architectures of memorialisation in London.
When faced with devastating news, banal details often stick: drab furniture, laminated blue-tacked notices, peeling ring-binders – the sad trappings of a municipal building add insult to injury. This had to go.
The project certainly succeeds in its aim, having a ‘positive effect on the Coroner’s Service’, according to coroner Dr Fiona Wilcox. It is both classical and minimalist, secular yet spiritual, and carries the gravitas of the Victorian building into the modern space. It is thoughtfully-designed, well-executed in quality materials and creates a calming oasis in frantic central London; the architecture of solace.
Architect Lynch Architects
Structural engineer Bryan Packman Marcel
Landscape design Richard Nye
Lighting design Candra Lighting Design
Contractor Heeran Construction