New uses for churches must be found if they are to survive redundancy
Originally published in AR May 1972, this piece was republished online in April 2016
A church remains a monument whatever the spiritual or material loss from disuse. So the ‘Review’ makes no apology here for treating churches primarily as buildings of aesthetic and environmental value, for which new uses must be found if they are to survive redundancy. This is not to be unaware of other solutions like part conversion or joint use with churches of other denominations; and much redundancy in the country could probably be avoided if the financial onus of keeping a church in good repair was taken on by the local community.
Such views are more properly the affair of the Church and of the communities involved. Of general concern, however, is the danger of demolition for apparently irrefutable economic reasons-the sale, for example, of a valuable urban site to a development company or housing association. Two Victorian churches by Sir Arthur Blomfield (one in Portsmouth and the other in Poplar) have disappeared in this manner, while the monumental Holy Trinity in Bishop’s Bridge Road, Paddington, by Thomas Cundy (1843-46) is a fresh heap of rubble.
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Demolition is unlikely in the case of the nine City churches, which, out of a total of 37, the recent Commission on Churches in the City of London recommended for redundancy. Although the commission insisted that no steps should be taken to declare these churches redundant until suitable new uses have been found for them, their report (published October 1971) prompted an immediate and healthy challenge from the laity and clergy of the City Synod, who rejected their findings, accused the commission of ignorance in local church affairs and declared that it will carry out its own investigation.
The commission did not suggest specific new uses for each church, but listed some appropriate functions which included a concert hall, a library, a social club, a picture gallery or a museum and, most interestingly, a hall for one of the city livery companies.
‘A church remains a monument whatever the spiritual or material loss from disuse’
Old Kirk Newburn Fife 2
At Oxford, the 18th-century church of All Saints in the Turl, 12, declared redundant before the 1968 Pastoral Measure, is now being converted into a library for Lincoln College by Robert Potter with the advice of Sir John Summerson. Underwood’s Greek Revival church of St Paul in Walton Street, on the other hand, stands forlorn but structurally sound, 13.
Declared redundant by the church authorities but listed by the DOE, it is crying out for a new use. A medium-sized concert hall, much needed in Oxford, has been suggested. Several other examples of new uses, mis-uses and dis-uses are illustrated on these introductory pages.
Holy trinity Paddington
The future of church buildings is a problem, the size and complexity of which has probably never been seen before. Even if the temples of the classical world had been as numerous as the churches of Christendom, there were no conservationists then to act as watchdogs. Three conversions, all as it happens of classical churches, are illustrated on the following pages. The costs are encouraging and speak for the practicability of change. The article on Norwich examines a special case, but one which is not so special as to be unique.
There are plenty of towns in England with too many ‘down-town’ churches, and other local authorities might well follow Norwich in offering to take over the freehold for redundant churches within their boundaries. Finally, in ‘Problems of Redundancy’, the present situation is briefly examined, the difficulties of raising money are discussed and the need for comprehensive classification is urged.
‘The future of church buildings is a problem, the size and complexity of which has probably never been seen before’
Church into Cultural Centre St John’s, Smith square, London
Architect: Marshall Sisson
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‘It is strange that, whereas the fantastic element in Swift was soon accepted as a golden thread in the literature of the time, the phantasy of Vanbrugh, Hawksmoor and Archer has always been deeply suspect. Even today, the force of tradition directs more admiration to the “safe” architecture of Gibbs than to the inventors and experimenters of the deeply imaginative native school of Baroque.’ These words from Sir John Summerson’s Georgian London, written more than 25 years ago, may no longer ring quite so true, but they explain perhaps why Thomas Archer’s church of StJohn remained a ruin for nearly 20 years after the end of the last war, and why it was necessary for a group of private individuals to set up a charitable trust (the Friends of St John’s) and to get a Local Act passed by Parliament in order to buy (in 1964), rebuild and restore (in 1969) what in any other European country would have been acknowledged officially as an historic monument of unique value.
St John’s is one of the 10 churches, which were completed by 1730 under the Act of 1711 for building 50 new churches. It was begun in 1713 and consecrated in 1728 by which time the houses around the square had also been completed. The interior was destroyed by fire in 1742 and the first restoration by James Horne (1744-5) omitted the 12 columns which supported the gallery and broke the span of the vaulted ceiling, substituting instead a flat ceiling in one span. In 1824 William Inwood and his son Henry William altered the interior to accord with the then fashionable Greek Revival style, and in May 1941 the church was gutted by incendiary bombs.
After an abortive scheme to rebuild the church as an archive for the Church Commissioners and the Diocese of London, the second restoration, which reinstates Archer’s original interior in all essentials, was undertaken to provide a building for religious and cultural activities. The church remains a consecrated building with an altar at the west end but is freed by the act from the legal effects of consecration.
‘Because the acoustics for music turned out quite successful, the church is used mainly for public concerts, broadcasting and recording sessions’
This was the first time such a formula recommended by a committee had been embodied in an act of parliament, but it has since been incorporated into the 1968 Pastoral Measure. Since the stage was intended to be at the east end, where performers could have direct access to one of the staircases leading to the crypt, the altar had to be at the west end. But, for the BBC, stage and control room were much too close, while performers generally seemed to prefer playing in front of the large west window, so that the stage is now almost permanently at the west end.
In practice, because the acoustics for music turned out quite successful, the church is used mainly for public concerts, broadcasting and recording sessions. Except for providing an office and a control room under the organ gallery, the work within the main body of the church was therefore a straight restoration job, which has provided a notable addition to London’s concert halls. The galleries cannot be used by the public until they are strengthened and two additional escape staircases, omitted for economy, are built. Much less satisfactory is the planning of the utilitarian functions in the crypt. Although the low vaults make an apt setting for a fully licensed bar and restaurant (in which up to 200 people can be accommodated), the space allocated to performers is much too small and the facilities (for example, only two wcs for the women) totally inadequate.
Both church and crypt have full gas-fired central heating and extract ventilation, but there is insufficient ventilation in the crypt and there are proposals to improve it. Excluding the chancel and the space under the organ gallery, the church is 96ft long by 62ft wide, with 34ft between columns. The volume is some 275 000 cu ft and the considerable height of 48ft to the apex of the vaults, as well as the form of the interior, presented acoustic problems. On the advice of Hope Bagenal acoustic felt was fitted to all the ceilings and heavy plate glass was used in the windows to prevent loud music being a nuisance to residents. Later, when the building came to be used mainly for recording and broadcasting music, double windows were inserted to exclude as much external noise as possible.
‘In practice, because the acoustics for music turned out quite successful, the church is used mainly for public concerts, broadcasting and recording sessions’
St johns conversion 2
Church into public records office
St George’s, Charlotte square, Edinburgh Architects : Directorate of scottish services, department of the environment
Some buildings are so important in their urban setting that their fabric should never be allowed to deteriorate. Such a building is St George’s Church, completed in 1814 to the designs of Robert Reid. Too monumental perhaps for Robert Adam’s houses in the square, but right for its dominating position on the main axis of James Craig’s New Town. Yet in 1960 an appeal had to be launched for funds to eradicate dry rot which had made the dome unsafe, and in the course of the work t hat followed structural faults were discovered which proved too expensive to put right. No wonder that in 1967, when the DOE began conversion, a second major repair operation was found necessary before any new work could be undertaken.
The story of how a church because a repository is an example of typical British compromise. In 1962 the building ceased to be used as a church and step were taken to find a new use. Already in 1959 lack of space at Old Register House had reached a critical point, and m 1963 the Keith Committee advised that congestion should be relieved by an auxiliary repository on the outskirts of Edinburgh, a recommendation which flatly contradicted the views of the Scottish Records Advisory Council that separation of any part “as not Practicable By suggesting the use of St George’s the then Ministry of Public Buildings and Works neatly by-passed the problem of buying an expensive site in a central area. For the City bought the building from the Church (removing thereby any risk of demolition) and offered it to the Ministry at a peppercorn rent. Though separation thus became unavoidable, at least it was separation of only three-quarters of a mile.
‘Some buildings are so important in their urban setting that their fabric should never be allowed to deteriorate’
The brief posed two distinct problems: the provision of public functions in the form of exhibitions and research and the storage and preservations of documents. The first is accommodated on two floors immediately behind the main entrance, and the second over five floors mainly within the space of the former nave. In converting the church, the masonry shell was retained and a freestanding steel frame on independent foundations built up within. The whole of the storage area is fire-resisting construction and has a smoke detection system. Temperature and humidity control provide the conditions necessary for the preservation of documents and micro-film.
The material for storage is unloaded under cover in Randolph Place, which is one storey lower than Charlotte Square. It is processed, cleaned and packaged before being to the sorting and binding room on the top floor. Mobile shelving (50 000 linear feet) has been used throughout the storage area to achieve the maximum use of space. Calculations show that another redundant build may have to be found in 50 years, time Of course there is nothing left of the church internally, not even in spirit. Preservationists may regret the loss of the domed space in the nave, but the high rum and dome on Charlotte Square was never part of the interior scheme as the section before conversion shows. The interior, moreover, was always plain most of the money having gone in to the facade and superstructure. What really mattered was to find a new use which could leave the exterior unaltered, and in this both architect and client have been successful.
Holy trinity southwark 3
Holy trinity southwark 2
Project: Church into Rehearsal Hall Holy Trinity, Southwark, London
Architects: Arup Associates
Unlike St John’s, Smith Square, the timber roof structure and copper finish of Francis Bedford’s Greek Revival Church of the Holy Trinity (1823-4) were renewed under a war damage claim and the building was in use as a church until 1960. It is now a redundant church (the first to be so declared in the south under the Pastoral Measure of 1968), and the Disused Churches Committee of the Diocese must dispose of it. After a number of applications some of which were unfavourably received (including a swimming pool and a petrol station), the planning authority have now given outline planning approval for a change of use to a rehearsal hall, though an application for seven fiats from a developer is the only one at present before the Church Commissioners. Holy Trinity stands in the middle of the contemporary Trinity Church Square. In 1968, together with the adjoining Merrick Square, it was declared a conservation area.
The structural division into nave and aisles of Gothic churches whether medieval or Victorian, is a restricting factor when it comes t o accommodating a full orchestra, and in their search Arup Associates rejected at least one Victorian church for this reason. Holy Trinity is 103ft long by 61ft wide by 35ft high, dimensions which, except for the height, are almost identical with those of StJohn’s. But unlike StJohn’s, Holy Trinity has the advantage of a singlespan roof structure and a 61ft by 41ft clear space at the choir end (where the galleries were at one time cut back), which will be ideal for rehearsing the largest orchestras when the floor has been levelled.
Recording companies would probably like to see the side galleries removed altogether, but the end gallery, the architects argue, should be retained in any scheme, as this would be an ideal position for a chorus. The rooms required for modern stereophonic recording could be positioned underneath this providing good contact with the main hall. Like StJohn’s, Holy Trinity has a large crypt which would house all the ancillaries including a music library, a store for instruments and a cafeteria. A revealing comparison with StJohn’s are the 10 wcs and 10 basins (on a basis of 90 persons) proposed for the women’s lavatories.
A comfortable rehearsal acoustic demanded a volume of approximately 200 000 cu ft, and this accords well with the actual volume of some 224 000 cu ft. Acoustic tests have been carried out and a middle frequency reverberation time of 2.1 seconds, ideal for both rehearsal and recording conditions, was calculated for a full orchestra of 120 spaced for rehearsal. To exclude external noise all openings would be sealed, windows made double and mechanical systems designed to give t he low noise criteria level of 20 inside the church.
Holy Trinity is well served by public transport, with most of the rail way terminals, the South Bank concert halls and the Barbican complex all readily accessible. There is no restriction on street parking, but one of the conditions attached to any planning permission will probably be to restrict the use of the hall to rehearsals and not allow public concerts. In the long run this would be a pity. Church interiors have a real sense always been public property and any new use should by preference be a public use.