There is nothing fantastical about the classical solid stone meeting house Mark Wray Architects has turned into a bookshop, but as his fantasy-project-come-true it ticks all the boxes
You know when you are chatting to your friends and you say your dream job would be to design a shop? And then they introduce you to their boss and you actually get to do it? That is what happened to Mark Wray of Bath-based Mark Wray Architects.
But that doesn’t mean it was plain sailing from there. There was planning and conservation to attend to in the grade II listed chapel’s conversion. And the pandemic. And fitting in metres of shelving for 75,000 books and creating access while preserving a sense of open space and a place for popular author talks.
Wray has strong handle on conversion and conservation, having worked with reinterpreter of historic buildings Richard Griffiths Architects and on the design of the RIBA Reading Room at the V&A while at Wright & Wright Architects. RIBA competition wins that marked out his practice in that hopeful-yet-perilous category of ‘emerging’ include Prescot Market Place and a new building for the Woodland Trust. Setting up in Somerset he found a healthy stream of residential work, much with existing buildings, including an extension for this friend, a bookseller with Toppings (in charge of cooking and children’s books since you ask).
And – being based only seven minutes’ walk from the chapel – he had worked on the building before, for a tenant charity. The chapel has had a messy institutional history, it was designed by William Wilkins of National Gallery fame as a masonic lodge in 1819. The secrecy of the Freemasons was built into the project with a blank stone ‘front door’ formally nodding to the street under a portico, and actual entrances to the side. Even the street-side windows were not added until 1842 when it became first a non-conformist chapel, and then an assembly room (think Jane Austen dances and glances). As the social centre of Bath society shifted the chapel was adopted by the Quakers in the 1860s, who used it not just for gatherings but also exhibitions. As Quaker use declined, the basement was let to a charity and the ground floor became a spillover space for visitors to the Roman Baths, a few doors along – the cold, musty hall echoing with the hurried rustling of packed lunches as school groups took it over.
Other futures have been imagined for it. Chef Raymond Blanc had plans for it as a restaurant in the heart of this tourist quarter. As that was about to start, recession hit. Meanwhile in 2007 a high profile defector from bookshop chain Waterstones, Robert Topping, had opened a small shop at the top of town in Bath. He boosted its reputation by inviting big name authors to come and speak. As he grew Toppings and Company Booksellers with his shops in Ely, Edinburgh and St Andrews he started looking for bigger premises. He found the Quaker meeting house was on the doorstep of the Roman Baths and Bath Abbey, two of the city’s big tourist draws – as the numerous ice cream and fudge shops on the street attest. And so it was he started work with Mark Wray.
Luckily, that Raymond Blanc application for the Quaker meeting house had envisaged opening up a front entrance under the notional ‘doorway’, and a mezzanine, but there was still a lot of detail to be navigated. Despite the seven layers of signage uncovered during the works, no new permanent signage was allowed on the building. Railings met the same problem, those at door level on the edge of the portico plinth had to be removeable and the current position is that they have to be taken in each night as the shop closes – they have permission to remain only between 8.30am and 8.30pm. Delicate bronze handrailings have gone in though, underlit with LEDs for darker nights. The stone ‘door’ has been replaced by timber doors which are kept open when the shop is, while sliding glass doors beyond invite glances and keep the warm air in.
Inside the work was stripping back and putting in legible inserts; the delicately handled mezzanine and cosy book alcoves under it being the most obvious. Bookshelves, of course, hide much of the mezzanine structure and necessitate deeper books to be avoided where shelves meet columns. The inevitably bulky platform lift is treated as a piece of furniture except where it turns into a giant blackboard for navigation, rather like the freestanding blackboards Toppings uses to advertise events. Just as some designs work with the dimensions of a brick so book heights here determined the height of the mezzanine and its shelves. ‘It was a mathematical issue, that and trying not to hit the cornice at the top,’ explains Wray.
There is a domesticity to the some of the Toppings fittings and furniture that Wray, left to his own devices, might have shied away from. But the kitchen tables, grandfather clock and cottagey crockery – browsers are invited to sit and take a drink – are part of the brand that includes making customers feel at home. Lights and shelves were done by Toppings’ own team and, apart from an astonishing number of wires on the central lights, seem to work well with Wray’s designs.
This is not a project where sustainability was a strong consideration but there was perhaps an accidental win in that the gas heating was taken out, so no fossil fuels here. Wray quotes Topping saying they ‘never had a cold bookshop’ and certainly customers come in dressed for the weather and don’t want to strip off and carry around awkward layers. Radiators take wall space better used for books, so they were out. Instead infrared radiators on the ceiling should keep the shop at a reasonable temperature.
There are many dream jobs in the world, not all of which can be delivered by a friend. But to have done one and have it on your studio doorstep to enjoy and show off is quite something for any practice. Hopefully it is a project that will cement a step up from ‘emerging’ for Mark Wray Architects.