Sunday, 10 July 2011

St Pauls on Bow Common, Burdett Road, 03.07.11

A church should stand out from the high street. Traditionally they should rise to the heavens while other buildings sink to lower interests. Then sky scrapers came along and took the skies from God and sold them to the financial sector. Now public interest has sunk and a church can be any size. Certain modern churches make efforts to nostalgically restore and replicate architectural Christian traditions but a small number of new churches have aimed to create something modern and original. St Paul’s of Bow Common is one of those rare church buildings that are unashamedly original in its architectural design which has led it to be heralded as “the most significant church built after the 2nd World War.”

When traveling down the busy intersection of A1205 three concrete blocks appear to orbit above the gridlocked traffic. The three are piled on top of each other like a make-shift pyramid; they seem separate but are strangely aligned. The ascent of the blocks does not look natural and instead provides the impression of a larger power at work. The Three are geometrically perfect shaped blocks formed principally by mass produced brown bricks that echo the post war 1960s building boom. Yet the descending size of the blocks as they rise in height is odd for the time. The three don’t want to be another tower block clogging up the sky line and have decided to strive for individual character in a mass produced age.

The block with the most character is the smallest which has risen the highest from buildings foundations. Its glass triangles mark a perimeter adding light and colour to an otherwise drab exterior. The contrast of the light colour in the glass to the brown brick strikes onlookers with relief.  In comparison to its brick brothers the smallest mechanically morphs above its station, crowned by a seven stone cube shaped cross. The cross finds the presence of God in unfamiliar materials. Materials more associated with industry and modernity than religion. It’s like God’s presence has been forced upon modern architecture. The building’s odd mix of religious symbolism and industrial production does not seem to belong together and therefore they appear other worldly, even alien. An industrial building with soul outside industry brings to mind the architecture of science fiction: the top block providing an alien like identity to the otherwise conventional 1960s large structure, yet the two remaining blocks have a few unconventional features.

 The larger second block merely holds up its smaller more extravagant brother and provides the link to the lower base. The base is the entrance to this church styled spaceship whose side door is a brown brick hexagon oddly decorated by pillars that hold a concrete slab above with a large engraved message. The message is written across three sides of the slab and overlooks all visitors with the words “Truly this is no other but the house of God this is the gate of heaven. “ The quote is taken from the book of Genesis, its large lettering is characterised as handwritten as if a giant had carved these important words onto the incidental side entrance. The entrance could not be more self-important for its time, it refuses to be ignored so much it declares itself the greatest entrance of all time as you enter. Inside a Christian may expect to find heaven but even a non-believer passing through the doors would expect to see something unknown.

Inside the nave the glass windows from the top block again provide a heart to the building, their light attempting to fill the dark tomb like interior. Smoke from the incense during the service was brilliantly pronounced in the sanctuary which was placed in the centre of the room directly under the large windows. Hanging corrugated iron arches marked the inner sanctum but did not divide the congregation as the seating was based on Byzantine features influenced by The Liturgical movement from 1960s (similar to St Michaels and All Angels on Lansdowne Drive). The inclusive space based on traditional ideas of worship broke from the more formal convention of Victorian churches to a space that aspires to be more spiritual than religious. Everybody was placed on an equal level with the priest, only the overlooking window that lit the room commanded a divine authority. The large size and minimal architectural clutter may have felt empty except the church was currently populated by an exhibition by the artist Charles Lutyens. The majority of the art works consisted of oil canvases displayed across the wall but near the centre of the light was a giant wooden statue of
Jesus entitled ”The Outraged Christ.” The large size of the bruised pine figurine filled the room with an otherworldly presence, not a religious presence but a presence that could only belong within these walls. The church felt like a temple because it did not fit formalised religious architectural ideas, it was attempting to form another identity, one that did not belong to time but belonged only to itself. No church is beyond its past, no matter how odd and sadly St Pauls did not belong to the realm of science fiction but had a very real and interesting past.

The original church was built just 150 years ago when the East End was beginning to emerge as a populated area after centuries of being no more than grazing land (hence the name Bow Common). The first St Pauls was a lofty Victorian Gothic church built in 1858 with an incredibly large spire. Sadly during the Blitz of World War 2 in 1941 incendiaries gutted the church, reducing it to a shell. It took over a decade for War Reparation funds to finance the building of a new church under the requirement that it seated a minimum of 500 people.  Led by the self-declared young radical Reverend Gresham Kirkby who hired designer Keith Murray and architect Robert Maguire under the mission to re-evaluate how earliest forms of church architecture can reveal  the true roots of Christian worship. Kirkby, Murray and Maguire all shared a rebellious belief that the architecture should break down institutional hierarchies and create a worshipping community that formed one body under Christ. Taking a post-modern approach to church architecture they claimed to borrow from the classical forms and Renaisance Revival – to the fundamental geometry square and circle – influences owing a debt to Brunschella, Palladio and Bramante. The oddness of the building comes from this amalgamation of traditional architectural ideas being produced by 20th century materials leading to a building that appears futuristic by the sheer fact it does not belong to a set era (except 1960s TV Sci Fi). Kirkby, Murray and Maguire were not interested in aliens but delivering a building that created an inclusive space that reflected the nature of liturgy, however I would argue regardless of the trio’s intention the unconventional ethos and design of the building has clear artistic aspirations.

 A church is intended to bring us closer to a communal sense of grace by which we all feel as one and this is also one of the central attributes of art. So if St Pauls is the theatre for great art, what of the service? Sadly the High Anglican Parish Eucharist felt like a tired trawl of traditions in comparison to the church’s unusual and innovative architecture. Despite the formulaic presentation, the service was saved by the softly spoken and bumbling old boyish charm of Father Colin Midlane and his sprawling sermon. Father Colin Midlane was filling in for the absent resident Vicar Duncan Ross. More directed than director of proceedings he took a while to get his bearings in the ritual but his sermon was full of sincere enthusiasm and intellectual wonderment at the power of church architecture. How the subject matter linked to the Feast of Saint Thomas I was unsure but there was no doubting his interest in the relationship between art and god personified by St Paul’s architecture. Father Midlane’s interests reflecting my own felt like the closest to divine intervention I had yet to experience since January. This traveling reverend was like a priest doppelgänger except he believes in God, was 40 years my senior and far more pleasant to strangers. Father Midlane could not help but take the opportunity to compare the modern eccentric uniqueness of St Pauls on Bow Common to the other churches he had visited and he questioned how these surroundings informed his relationship with God. He confessed in the kindest of tones that some church architecture made him depressed and that he would block them from his mind during his prayer while he also praised the work of Henry Moore’s fountain in St Michaels of the Fields for making him see God in other ways. This personal openness was refreshing if a tad self-indulgent (reminds you of someone?) but his frank and sincere thoughts on the importance of the architecture as an artistic device to emulate God stimulated discussion not dogma. Ironic that he had unconsciously hidden in the sermon an unintentional criticism of the robotic ritual of the Eucharist by praising arts ability to inspire the ethereal spirit of God, an aspect of God outside the scripture.

God outside scripture is alien; he is the unknown even to the Christians who put faith in him. When Kirkby, Murray and Maguire created St Pauls 2nd they knew that they had to create a building that inspired the unknown power of God in a modern age. The unconventional architecture provides wonder that is to mirror a Christian’s wonder of God. Despite the routine ritual of the service Father Midlane acknowledged the desire in Kirkby, Murray and Maguire to create a building that inspires God in its inhabitants. Father Midlane recognised this quality as art and so do I. My reason is because the church building is not interested in replicating traditions but providing something new. In many ways the church did not care about the past it cared about the now but the now did not care about it and therefore it has a rare alien like quality. The alien like quality makes it truly unique and self-sufficient, an attribute I would most associate with art.

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