Raising the Profile
It appears in paintings, guides, novels and Gavin Stamp places it on the front cover of his latest collection of essays Anti-Ugly. Hawksmoor’s Grade I listed Christ Church Spitalfields is about as high profile as a building can get. Jon Buck of Studio Cullinan And Buck Architects (SCABAL) considers it to be, “A strong white stake in the dissenting soup of different interests of early 18th century London. ‘Here I am!’ it proclaims.”
A row of buildings including the original Christ Church Primary School once stood next to it on what used to be Red Lion Street, now Commercial Street. The school moved to nearby Brick Lane and the adjacent churchyard was decommissioned in 1874. An informal garden emerged along the vacant frontage and by 1970 a youth centre occupied part of the site. Nine protected London Plain trees date from the decommissioning.
The current Rector, backed by the London Diocese, has a vision for this sliver of urban space sandwiched between Fournier Street and Fashion Street. Geographically and symbolically, Rev Andy Rider sees the church as a meeting place of creative East London and the financial City to the west. An integral element of this vision is the new nursery and community building which provides much needed accommodation while opening up twice as much usable outdoor space. For instance, the northern flank is much shorter than its predecessor resulting in a more generous space next to the church.
SCABAL won the bid. Jon believes in responsibility to the past and future. Part of the planning application was a 168 page tome of a Conservation Management Plan. Architecture is too often pastiche (Ecclesiastes 1.9: ‘What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun’) whether neo Georgian, recycled modernist boxes or Accordia-lite. Not here. SCABAL has produced something original, subtle referencing in place of derivation. Sensitive handling instead of intrusiveness.
The barn-like pavilion is, appropriately, tripartite in plan. Clusters of rooms to the north and south are linked by glazed central multipurpose hall. With low eaves and reclaimed London Plum bricks similar to those of Fournier Street Rectory, the northwest and southwest corners are treated as a walled garden. Jon explains, “The plan arrangement is derived from that of Christ Church: 12 metres describing the nave; 5.5 metres, the aisles. In its humble way, the central gathering place is nave-like and lofty.” Large spans of section posts and beams maximise flexibility of use. Rooflights avoid overlooking in response to the sensitivities of diverse cultures. Low level windows in the nursery are child-friendly.
Lime mortar is a subtler reference to the church than using dressed stone. “Copying Christ Church would look cheap,” believes Jon. “This building is next to, but not a fragment of, the church. It’s small but generous, different… ground level heroic.” An asymmetrical plan dictates the irregular shape of the half-hipped roof with its timber frame overhangs. Too shallow a pitch for slate, zinc picks up the reddish hue of the bricks.
Hailed as best practice in action by statutory bodies, it’s staggering that Spitalfields’ lowest profile new building (the church is 14 times taller) is gaining a high profile. A local group is seeking to have it demolished. Meanwhile the sands of time are sinking and the lessons of Gavin Stamp’s essay Hawksmoor Redivivus go unnoticed. Until this disagreement is resolved, the nursery and community building lies unused next to the overcrowded school.
- Drawings © SCABAL