“You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet” croons Lisa-Marie Presley. You ain’t. And you won’t. Not yet. For Mary Martin London is busy sewing up a storm for her forthcoming fashion feat: The Return Collection. This comes hot and heavy on the haute heels of her last extravaganza Blood Sweat and Tears. This time it really is all about power dressing. And the corridors of power are about to be torn up by the thrust and throttle no room for boondoggle of a Mary Martin London show. “If our myths and truths are only another exotic blossoming, the free play of possibility,” writes Marilynne Robinson in The Death of Adam, “then they are fully as real and as worthy of respect as anything else.”
Show. Not merely catwalk, for Mary will as ever be mixing decks in between directing the lighting, sound, photography, choreography, and always, laughter. There is really only one space that can hold its own for her solo show. Enter Durbar Court. “I like that the heads of the East India Company leaders will be looking down on my catwalk!” Mary howls laughing. “History and all that!” The Court was first used in 1867 for a reception of the Sultan of Turkey. King Edward VII threw his Coronation party here in 1902. Ms Robinson again, “At best, our understanding of any historical moment is significantly wrong, and this should come as no surprise, since we have little grasp of any present moment.” More recently, President Trump gave a speech here; Victoria Beckham showed last summer; Vivienne Westwood before that; but this is a first: a black female designer holding court in Durbar Court.
There’s so much art and sculpture and history layered with meaning and misapprehension in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. En processional route to Durbar Court is the Muses’ Stair. An octagonal glass lantern lighting the Portland stone staircase is decorated by Canephorae, Roman goddesses of plenty, floating over cherubs representing Roman virtues. Portraits of Emperor Napoleon III and Empress Eugénie hang between red Devonshire marble and grey Derbyshire marble Corinthian columns.
“Dare to be you!” Reverend Andy Rider preached in his last sermon as Rector of Christ Church Spitalfields. Over 100 years ago Lady Sybil Grant wrote in her self hagiography, “Provided that we are a star we should not trouble about the relative importance of our position in the heavens.” Fastforward a century or so and Mary is confident of her place in the firmament. And daring to be Mary Martin London. The creation of Eve. “We should be thankful that our cinematographic life in London still affords the quality of mystery and unexpectedness,” proclaimed Lady Sybil. Big statement.
Big statement architecture requires big statement fashion. Another interjection from Marilynne Robinson, “It all comes down to the mystery of the relationship between the mind and the cosmos.” First there was The Black Dress: “I see through a dark cloud of black mist.” Then The Red Dress: “The tainted bride is no longer a virgin.” Next came The White Dress: “I dream of memories when I was a Queen.” There’s only one dress left. The Rainbow Dress: “It’s finally coming – the biggest and the best! The Rainbow Dress will open The Return Collection!” the fashion artist declares. “A world champion ballerina will combine Tai quan dao and African dance on the catwalk. I’m bringing it in a bit different! People haven’t been out so I’m going to give them an amazing show. The Return to Africa. I’m out of the box!” Out of the box and into the Court. “Just A Dream” mourns Lisa-Marie Presley. Not for Mary Martin London. She is all about turning dreams into fantasies into realities into myths and truths. An uncommon wealth of talent.
It’s hard to believe that not much more than a decade ago Christ Church lay derelict, the congregation meeting round the corner in Hanbury Hall (where Charles Dickens once performed readings). The timely arrival of Reverend Andy Rider in autumn 2003 more or less coincided with the restoration of the church. At least from ground upwards. Christ Church the building was reborn. Then came the congregations. Plural. Now there’s an 8.30am Book of Common Prayer service for early risers (everyone heads to Spitalfields Market for breakfast afterwards), two hours later a family service, a Bengali service at 4pm and The Five for late risers. “It’s used a bit like a cathedral,” Andy observes.
The services become livelier, younger and better attended as Sunday progresses, culminating in a congregation of several hundred mainly 20 to 30 somethings by the evening. A lunchtime service for city workers is held every Tuesday. Diverse in worship and worshippers yes, but there’s a common thread: theologically sound, intelligent, life changing sermons. One service it might be Andy on “A Joyride through Philippians”. The next, Darren on “The Holy Spirit of Promise” (Ephesians) or Antje a German born lay preacher on “Sent to Make the Deaf Here” (Mark) or Pieter-bas a Dutch born lay preacher on “Sent to Change Hearts” (more Mark). In between Sunday afternoon services, the nave is open to the public. Described in the Evening Standard as “the best building in London”; breathlessly praised by historian Harry Goodhart-Rendel “it remains doubtful whether of its date and kind there is any finer church in Europe”; and haled by all as Hawksmoor’s masterpiece, it’s unsurprising this horizon piercing Grade I landmark is an international visitor attraction.
Christ Church has only taken three centuries to complete (usual build period of a contemporary London development rarely tops 24 months). Wren’s student Hawksmoor laid the cornerstone in 1714 but the builders focused on completing the above ground work. Below, throughout the passage of time the crypt remained a sculpted unfinished shell, a ribbed skeleton in need of fleshing out and dressing up. The guardianship of Reverend Rider and his accompanying holystic vision changed all that. Meanwhile, above the crypt, Europe’s finest baroque organ (once played by Handel) recently thundered one fine Sunday morning, notes marching ‘cross the aisle, filling the nave, floating up through the clerestory, ending four decades of silence after a multimillion pound restoration by the Friends of Christ Church Spitalfields.
“The biggest challenge of the crypt project was having no obvious financial provision during the first seven years of my ministry here,” says Andy. Over £3 million was needed. “We still appointed architects and moved the concept towards design. It was when the finance became available through the generosity of The Monument Trust that our biggest challenge was overcome.” Nothing is incidental or accidental; minutiae were agonised over by Andy and the property team. Midnight oil burned in the Fournier Street Rectory while taps were chosen, lights selected and rugs argued over. “Above all,” he states, “I am proud of the church family members who gave themselves to the property team who I believe God deliberately brought to Christ Church for this chapter of its history.”
Dow Jones Architects were tasked with lending the labyrinth meaning, cracking the carapace, unleashing the dust of myriad wooden voices, listening to Andy and the property team. Wearing her erudition ever lightly, Biba Dow expounds on the challenge: “We began by stripping out all the partitions so that we were left with just Hawksmoor’s structure. We revealed the stone piers and beams. The brickwork vaults were limewashed to dematerialise the existing structure into light while retaining the form and texture of the material. Then we inserted a series of oak rooms into Hawksmoor’s space. We wanted to maintain a sense of the scale of the crypt. This is apparent when you walk down the ramp into the crypt and see along its length and then arrive in the café and see its width. We also wanted the windows to light the public spaces and connect them to the city outside. The oak rooms have an outer set of glazed doors and an inner side of oak doors. This allows them to be used in different ways… The oak walls to the main spaces have staggered boards – a contemporary version of plank and muntin panelling. The back of house spaces have narrower tongue and grooved oak walls.”
Another paragraph worthy quote from Biba, “Our concept came from the position of Spitalfields within the mythos of London. It’s a transitional zone, culturally and physically, beyond the city walls. Hawksmoor stacked two triumphal arches on top of each other to form the church’s west front. The city gate is an architectural type that reconciles the centre with the edge. Hawksmoor’s façade explicitly expresses this marginal condition. It’s a juxtaposition which has brought and continues to bring an extraordinary cultural dynamic to the neighbourhood. We wanted the crypt to be part of Spitalfields. The wide ramp entrance brings the York stone pavement down into the space to make a public place. Our idea for the oak panelling was to make something which defines the place in between the edge and centre. The oak sits within the structure of the church building, making a place of habitation. We wanted the new fabric to be clearly contemporary and reversible so that you understand the primacy of Hawksmoor’s space.” Metalwork is bronze. Fabric is from Bute.
Criss crossed crypticChristian chrysalis. A northern light, a southern kirk, an eastern revivification, a western Gesamtkunstwerk. Take the chapel door. Leading glass artist Nikki Cass was commissioned to create an artwork of fired coloured collaged glass to be inserted into the door of this thin place. “Your grace abounds in deepest waters,” goes the Hillsong hit Oceans. Biblical verses delivered divine inspiration as blues and greens and reds and yellows flowed. “The river of the water of life as crystal flowing from the throne of God” (Revelations). “Whosoever believes in the stream of living water will flow from within him” (John). “No one can enter the Kingdom of God unless he is born of water and spirit” (John again). Nikki’s artwork has even spawned an accompanying book. Then there’s the kitchen – a stainless steel work of art worthy of a double Michelin starred restaurant (Comme Chez Soi, anyone?).
“We cannot leave Christ Church without mentioning the curious detail of the windows (which is echoed in the street-facing wall of Truman’s Brewery, Brick Lane) – the pull that is set up by the sequence of small circular portholes above tall narrow lower windows. This is the symbol at the heart of Munch’s iconography – and relates to a whole chain of meanings and resonances – the grail-cup above the lance – the cauldron and the sword – female and male – the setting sun and the molten light over the waters – the pill about to be dropped into the test-tube – stylisation of the phallus and generative spurt – volatile/active – demanding the leap of energies – repeated symbols of the unconsummated – invitation.” Lud Heat by Iain Sinclair.
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.