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Competition: St Michael le Belfrey Church, York

The RIBA has launched an international contest to reconfigure the Grade I-listed St Michael le Belfrey Church in York, England (Deadline: 19 February)

Open to architect-led multidisciplinary teams, the two-stage competition seeks innovative proposals to refurbish and ‘re-order’ the 1537 landmark which has an 800-strong congregation and is next to York Minster.

The £3.5 million project will draw on contemporary technology to transform the popular venue into a ‘welcoming, accessible and warm church environment, with a flexible interior arrangement which remains faithful to its heritage’. Five shortlisted teams will receive £7,000 to participate in the contest’s design phase.

St Michael le Belfrey Church, York

St Michael le Belfrey Church, York

St Michael le Belfrey Church, York

The church’s vicar Matthew Porter said: ‘This project is all about making our historic church building better suited for worship and mission in the 21st century; being better equipped so we, and future generations, can even more effectively worship God and reach out with the love of Christ, to York and beyond.’

Architect Keith Williams, who is acting as RIBA adviser on the competition, said: ‘This stunningly beautiful church in its spectacular location next to one of Europe’s greatest cathedrals, is an absolute gem. Dating from the early 16th century, St Michael le Belfrey exhibits many layers of architectural intervention as patterns of worship and social structures have evolved over time.

‘The great challenge set out in this competition is to create the new legacy, the 21st-century architectural intervention which will facilitate evolving patterns of worship for now and for generations to come.’

St Michael le Belfrey Church, York

St Michael le Belfrey Church, York

Source: Image by Beep Boop Beep

St Michael le Belfrey Church, York

The church’s parish was merged with nearby St Cuthbert’s Church in the early 1970s following a revival led by the English Anglican priest, evangelist and author David Watson.

Today the building is in need of a replacement roof and repairs to its belfry. An existing pipe organ is also due to be relocated off-site freeing up additional spaces within the structure.

The project aims to create a new flexible layout for the church while creating a new ‘beautifully executed’ exterior welcome area alongside improved toilets, catering and changing facilities.

Interested teams must first register and submit an expression of interest featuring a team description, motivation for applying, and relevant examples of previous work. Stage one judges include Williams and members of the Parochial Church Council at St Michael le Belfrey.

The winning team will deliver the scheme from RIBA Stage 1 through to 7.

How to apply


The deadline for applications is 2pm, 19 February

Contact details

RIBA Competitions
No 1 Aire Street

Tel: 0113 203 1490

Visit the competition website for more information

Q&A with Matthew Porter

The vicar and chair of PCC at St Michael le Belfrey discusses his ambitions for the competition

Matthew Porter

Matthew Porter

Matthew Porter

Why are you holding an international contest to refurbish and re-order St Michael le Belfrey Church in York?

Our vision of a re-ordered St Michael le Belfrey church fit for the 21st century isn’t something new, in fact it has been thought about for over a decade. The main thing that has consistently held us back though is not our determination, but the scale of the challenge – this is a beautiful Grade I-listed place of worship on the site of a 2,000 year old Roman legionary fortress and it is nestled up to the beloved York Minster in perhaps the most famous postcard view in the delightful city of York. Our building, constructed in the 1530s, is a fine piece of architecture but is in need of careful renovation and re-ordering for contemporary use into the future.

We’re looking for a very special design partner; someone who relishes the complexity as an opportunity, who has the sensitivity needed to bring everyone along with them, and who can really understand what our vibrant church community is all about. For an organisation of our scale, such a competition format represents a great platform to throw the net wide, to reach the highest calibre architectural practices and to receive a diverse set of concept options before we settle on a single design partner. Just as importantly, the technical panel will enable early involvement of statutory consultees and the public exhibition will serve to continue engagement with our sizeable church community in the earliest stages of design development.

What is your vision for the newly restored church?

We believe the opportunity to better reach and serve residents and visitors in York and beyond is amazing, not least because of the prime city centre location and passing footfall of St Michael le Belfrey church, but also because of our long-established vibrant church community. It is our vision that the restored building will be beautifully designed and highly functional. It will reflect our values of simplicity, festivity, generosity and humility. It will enable contemporary worship services, conferences and a variety of church and community activities to take place, using the best of contemporary technology and creative media, as the building serves our wider vision of serving God’s transformation of the North. As well as telling the story of faith and of our church (where England’s foremost villain, Guy Fawkes was baptised) we are a church community that has very good news to share today – of Christ’s presence and gracious love for a broken world – and we want our building to help us not just with our worship but in sharing this news with the people of York, the North of England and beyond in the coming century.

St Michael le Belfrey Church, York

St Michael le Belfrey Church, York

Source: Image by Beep Boop Beep

St Michael le Belfrey Church, York

Our church site is relatively small, with some open space owned in front of and along the side of the building, so we’re looking for creative ways to get the most out of what we have. There’s also a few constraints to bear in mind: being listed means there are significant aspects of the building needing conservation (for example historic stained glass); having foundations built on site of the Roman Principia (with probable later Viking and medieval influence) suggests there will be archaeological interest; the conservation area and general historic nature of the building will attract special interest from City of York Council, Historic England and various conservation groups and amenity societies.

We are seeking a high-quality reordered building and we hope that, despite the constraints, any new entrance and reconfigured interior will be contemporary and innovative, with us ending up with a building that is of architectural interest and of which we, our city and region is proud. We also hope to have a building that is as efficient as possible – utilising the best of green energy, water and materials – as we seek to care well for the created environment.

What sort of architects and designers are you hoping will apply?

We expect this wonderful opportunity to be a prestigious one, a real chance to leave a legacy in this famous area of York. Conscious of the project complexity and the risk it represents to a small charitable organisation such as ours, it is essential we engage with an experienced design partner. We remain open to the idea of a design team though, which could be an opportunity for emerging practices or undiscovered talents to team up with a more experienced lead.

Contest site

Contest site

Contest site

Which other design opportunities are on the horizon and how will the architects/designers be procured?

We do not anticipate initiating another project such as this in the near future – our hope is that this design will serve our church building well for the next 100+ years. That said, York Minster is in the process of developing its precinct masterplan involving adjacent public realm improvements, which may lead to other development opportunities in the local area.

Are there any other recent church modernisation projects you have been impressed by?

We have been impressed by church re-orderings at, for example:

• St Paul’s & St George’s church in Edinburgh by Lee Boyd Architects completed in 2008, in particular the design of its balcony and use of technology.

• All Saints church in Woodford Wells by MEB Design Ltd completed in 2015, in particular the clever creation of new usable space on a constrained site.

• Hull Minster by Ferrey & Mennim, Phase 2 completed in 2017, in particular the quality of workmanship and attention to conservation.


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