“10 minutes.” Frisson of anticipation. High flying MD Sara Nilsson DeHanas rocks up off the red eye Eurostar, suitcase in tow. Johannesburg this evening but in the meantime there’s a rendez vous with a Crown Prince to be had. Salut! Some meetings are unmissable. Reverend Andy Rider reminds us we’re in a place built to worship the King of Kings. “And a future king is on his way.” Phew, no pressure then. A chauffeur drops off the Lord Lieutenant of London. Police are everywhere. The eight bells are chiming. A choir gathers on the steps of the church. This is big.
“Five minutes.” Excitement mounts. Stewart Grimshaw of The Monument Trust, benefactor of Christ Church Spitalfields Crypt, is at hand, impressed by the finished restoration and conversion to additional church space, community use and café. “It’s wonderful The Wallace Collection is free for visitors,” he says of another Monument Trust funded project. Artist Emily Wolfe arrives. She painted a window scene, cleverly elongating the staircase landing of the Crypt with an imaginary vista. “It was a great commission.” Another artist arrives. Nikki Cass admires her own stained glass in the chapel. “I’m so pleased how well the light falls on it.” Totes agree.
“Two minutes. The Prince wants a tea. Earl Grey with honey.” Flurry of activity. Cups and saucers all round and quickly. Then in walks someone familiar. Do we know him? Is he family? Yes, Royal Family. Here’s a man, sorry, prince, comfortable in his own skin. He makes a beeline for us, recognising the fleur de Lys tie. “Very tactful,” he smiles. Gazing round: “The oak is simply sublime. Wonderful. What’s that?” pointing to a tiny hatch door in the apse wall. “Is that for Harry Potter to walk through?” He’s great company, witty, warm and relaxing. Little wonder Prince Harry is good fun. Like father…
Architect Biba Dow is given a two minute slot to explain a decade’s worth of work. Time is precious. Even past retirement age, the Prince is clearly in high demand. Andy makes a speech. We hear the bit about the Crypt not being possible without architects and planners being in the congregation. And his thanks to The Monument Trust. And thanks to Prince Charles. The Bishop of London prays majestically. Everything is dreamlike. Minutes last for hours.
Time for His Royal Highness to unveil the plaque we’ve had a hand in designing. “This Crypt will allow many more activities to be performed at Christ Church, serving the community… It’s been at least 10 years since I’ve been to Christ Church. The Crypt looks like the best place to eat in London!” Plaque revealed. Applause. The private secretary beckons. His press officer calls. The black Jaguar pulls up at the bottom of the steps of the church. Prince Charles declines, instead strolling down Commercial Street with his bodyguard. Clarence House can wait.
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.