Architecture Foundation’s exhibition at London’s Grand Junction shows how places of worship are diversifying to keep supporting their faiths and serve wider communities too
From a floating church to a Neolithic-style memorial barrow, the Architecture Foundation’s new exhibition Congregation takes in 23 buildings from diverse faiths including Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, and more.
The curators set out to examine how today’s social and economic factors are changing the nature of faith buildings in the UK. It’s a rich topic full of both design and financial ingenuity at a time when many faith clients look to new funding and organisation models to realise their plans, often through bringing in new uses and harnessing the development potential of the site.
This entrepreneurial approach is exemplified by the MacEwen commended regeneration of the imposing grade I listed church of St Mary Magdalene in Paddington, which as the exhibition venue itself is also one of the star exhibits. Designed by George Edmund Street in 1877 to house a congregation of some 900, its attendance had dwindled to just 12 by the time the church was restored and regenerated by the Paddington Development Trust, taking advantage of a law change which allows churches to remain in use in combination with other secular functions. Dow Jones Architects added an extension – Grand Junction at St Mary Magdalene – to house new community activities including a café, education room and access to the converted undercroft, where the exhibition is held.
The venue is an added bonus to the fascinating material in this exhibition. We learn how other churches have been transformed with the use of similarly enterprising enabling development in the form of new housing alongside the original faith building. At St Mary of Eton in Hackney, 27 homes were created in three buildings to fund a new church centre and community facilities in a £6 million intensification of the site by Matthew Lloyd Architects. Similarly, the ongoing refurbishment of St John-at-Hackney by John Pawson, Es Devlin and Thomas Ford & Partners is funded by adjacent new houses and a Heritage Lottery Grant.
A second section of the exhibition looks at the emergence of hybrid secular/sacred developments, where diverse new uses subsidise the faith element. Here, the faith spaces are embedded within the wider community as part of larger, multi-use buildings, most strikingly at the redevelopment of the MacEwen Award commended Bethnal Green Mission Church in Hackney. Designed by Gatti Routh Rhodes, the double-height church is now part of a layer cake of uses, including co-working and community with private and keyworker residential accommodation located above. Haworth Tompkins’ proposed Lighthouse project at Swiss Cottage promises myriad uses in the redevelopment of a 1950s church. These include performance space, gym, café, meeting rooms, education, offices and housing in addition to the central worship space. The spectacular facade – a contemporary take on the traditional church rose window – will give the building a landmark presence in the busy Finchley Road surroundings.
Denizen Works’ soon-to-complete Floating Church for the Diocese of London is particularly ingenious, opening up to the surrounding community to provide a variety of worship and community uses through the use of an expandable form inspired by organ bellows and camper vans. The plan is to use it as an incubator space to encourage a permanent faith community, before floating off to its next site.
A number of projects for minority faith groups are chosen to explore different responses to tradition and integration. Two mosques of contrasting scales show confident and contemporary expressions of Muslim identity – Marks Barfield’s extraordinary 1000-person capacity Central Mosque in Cambridge and Makespace’s relatively modest Shahporan Mosque and Islamic Centre in Hackney. In North Finchley, Spheron Architects’ design of the Belarusian Memorial Chapel draws strongly on the tradition of rural wooden churches in Belaurus to create a familiar focal point for the Belarusian diaspora in the UK.
Architecture Foundation director Ellis Woodman identifies another theme underpinning many of the exhibits – the embrace of environmental sustainability as part of the spiritual identity. This is evident in the sustainable and biodiverse landscape of Waugh Thistleton’s Jewish Cemetery at Bushey, one of several remembrance buildings in the exhibition, and in de Metz Forbes Knight’s Reform Synagogue in Finchley, which aspires to Passivhaus standards. At the Central Mosque in Cambridge, sustainably-sourced spruce forms the spectacular tree-like columns and lattice roof in a design inspired by both Islamic designs and English fan vaulting. The mosque has zero carbon on-site emissions, rainwater harvesting and air source heat pumps.
While the vast majority of the projects on display are urban, a section on retreats looks at rurally-located centres such as Walters & Cohen’s Vajrasana Buddhist Retreat Centre in Suffolk and Cottrell & Vermeulen’s New Community Haveli for the International Society for Krishna Consciousness in Hertsmere. These secluded developments draw on monastic architecture with a central landscaped courtyard which, the exhibition tells us, ‘places nature at the heart of the building, framing it as a symbol of spiritual renewal’.
At the Soulton Long Barrow in Shropshire, the walk through the landscape to the barrow is part of the memorial experience for those visiting the ashes of loved ones. And listening to those interviewed in the accompanying exhibition film, this process, combined with the ancient form of the barrow and the rituals the visitors choose to conduct, is deeply comforting both for those of faith and for those with none.
So can any common threads be determined throughout these disparate faith projects? While the outward forms are as diverse as you’d expect for such a variety of building types, settings and faith communities, in terms of the experience within, I’d say that yes, there are similarities in the tactility, warmth and robustness of the materials chosen and in the simplicity and tranquillity of the serene spaces created for worship, whatever that faith may be.
Both at Saint Mary Magdalene, Rowington Close, London W2 5TF