Monday, 10 March 2008

st barnabas church, dulwich

Ironically, as this essay is intended as an 'article', it translates poorly to a blog standing on its own. This essay is a quote-athon of german names and so on and in a stop-start fashion stutters through some of my thoughts on contemporary church building applied to St Barnabas, Dulwich, viewed through the lens of 'Building Ideas' and the requirements to use the critical approaches outlined in the book.

The church is pleasant enough and yet bemusing, and very much a child of its age (if thats the phrase i'm looking for..) socially and theologically.

The Church of St Barnabas, Dulwich
1996 - HOK Architects

1 – View of Church from the Road – Philip Jackson 2008

In the early morning of Monday, 7th December 1992, St Barnabas Church, Dulwich was set alight in an act of arson. It burnt for several hours, and by 6.30am when the fire was put out, very little was left of the 1905 red brick and sandstone church by W H Wood, once famous for its locally crafted wood-carved panels and stained glass. The church was considered to be “truly at the heart of the Dulwich community, not only physically but spiritually and socially” It had been insured for £3 million and so was posed the complex question of building a replacement, on an socially and emotionally loaded site. Such a blank slate opportunity has many precedents of demolished churches replaced with “evangelical sheds”, and Richard Cattley, responsible for commissioning the project, expressed concern over contemporary churches, whose emphasis on economy produced an effect more akin to “supermarkets, office blocks or prisons” rather than “inspirational and [possessed of] a numinous quality” that he was later to specify in the project brief. Clearly this is a building the conception of which was explicitly grounded in a certain philosophical system, this essay will consider appropriate interpretations of the proceeding design by Larry Malcic of HOK, London.

2 – W H Wood’s original church in flames, 7th December 1992 -St Barnabas Church 1997
3 – Remain structure, after the fire – St Barnabas Church 1997
The carefully worded design brief expressed the following: “...the new building should look and feel like a church. The main worship area should be inspirational and should possess a numinous quality which would give meaning to the space that was created...The church should be a welcoming place with which the community could identify, which would play a full part in everyday life; inviting people to come inside and explore faith. A place of belonging, outreach and nurture; significantly and visibly a place of worship; a land mark and a visible sign of Christian witness. A sacred place, of beauty, serenity and colour.”

The brief reflects the belief in architecture as a means of communication, as well as the more practical functions of providing shelter over usable space. Expressed is a desire to communicate to those within, engendering community, establishing a richer experience of dwelling, and affirming a particular world-view, but also to dialogue beyond the church even to proselytize. An ambitious notion, given the plurality of possible interpretations of any built form and the contemporary relativism of architectural language, but even more so given the post-modern suspicion of imposed meaning, and the implied power agenda.

The hope, it would seem, is that the designer would adequately assess the substance of the community and their faith and generate form in such a language as those beyond the church would comprehend. Umberto Eco has argued for the impossibility of an interpretation being controlled by the designer and advises design for “variable primary functions and open secondary functions” In so far as the meaning hoped for is one of community and faith, these essentially secondary functions will be connoted if and only if there is engagement by the users.
This tension is highlighted by Malcic to some extent in his discussion of the former tower as “a hollow symbol” as it had been designed for bells which were never installed. Despite this understanding of the role of the user's engagement in grounding the language of any symbolism, much of the design falsely assumes a more universal consensus of meanings, simplistically but arguably successfully the use of gabling may suggest a welcoming domesticity, however on more subtle and overtly theological metaphors the presupposition that in post-Christian Britain the communication of meaning in symbols such as Malcic's use of light to denote Christ is to deny the illiteracy of much of the population to such specific language or to suppose that there are symbolic absolutes, a limitation of Levi-Strauss' interpretation of mythic archetypes.

4 – Glass Spire from below – Philip Jackson 2008
Malcic proposed that “the spire... [would point] heavenwards, symbolising the divinity of night when the building was artificially lit from the inside it would provide a glowing symbol of the light of Christ for the whole neighbourhood.” - a notion which Edwin Heathcote disparages as a tired cliché of contemporary church building: “More than with any other building type, architects approaching a church design become obsessed with light...light has become the most powerful resource of architects often unfamiliar with the rituals and formal language of the contemporary church. Light is uncontroversial, unlike say art or even form...It appeals to atheists as much, if not more than to Christians if light itself was able to express everything an architect is not able to believe: the other, the beyond.” This is the tension evident throughout the building, of a now marginalised, essentially ecclesiastic language being adopted successfully to the extent that it serves its own community, but less so in the intention that it be married to modern construction and so communicate those values beyond its own community. This hope for objective meanings is implied again in the brief when the 'feel of a church' is stipulated, based on their belief such a feel is self-evident.

Clare Stevens in her narrative account of the design and building process recalls the desire within the Church to replace the destroyed building with a “dramatic architectural and aesthetic statement”, but more than that, they were looking for a “wow factor” This is another contending motive that accounts for the language used in the design and is among contemporary churches in the Northern Europe Protestant tradition curiously idiosyncratic at a time when their rigorous, harsh modernism was eschewing the sacred in the ordinary. Heathcote positively notes the influence of this brand of minimalism and the 'ordinary' beyond the ecclesiastic and attributes its rise to the counterbalancing of self-conscious architectural icons. This difference may account in part for the comments by Luke Hughes and others that that St Barnabas's feels much like an American church Malcic has expressed as a primary concern, a desire to “retain the simplicity of the building which he felt would give it the necessary presence and would prevent it from becoming dated. He firmly resisted pressure to make the design more elaborate.” This simplicity is pursued for its drama and “wow factor”, and given the emphasis on visibility in the brief could reasonably be attributed to a pursuit of that end.

I would argue that, in interpreting this architecture as a semiotic device, this emphasis on the dramatic image, communicates at least a tension with the desire also to communicate 'community' and to be a place of 'nurture'. Not simply for the bombastic way the building goes about it, but inherent in the pursuit of image is an undoing of Christopher Alexander's christianised notion of wholeness. That which is being communicated in the pursuit of the 'wow image' shares, in its motives, much in common with the machine aesthetic, and the shock value of projects such as the Pompidou Centre. But also in the practice of that movement frequently, as in the Villa Savoye, style has been pursued over engineering substance. To this end Malcic's aversion of ornament is complicit with the culture that has followed in the wake of Adolf Loos', "The evolution of culture marches with the elimination of ornament from useful objects" This functionalism was the outworking of a mechanistic world-view predicated in a sub-Christian Cartesian Dualism that would divide Man from the Other, nature and the transcendent. The pursuit of the functional aesthetic in the hope to prevent the church 'becoming dated' has historically been a flawed pursuit, but furthermore, a church that pursues un-dated-ness may do so at the expense of never belonging to a time, a place or a people.

5 – View to Spire – Philip Jackson 2008

6 – Red Brick Piers – Philip Jackson 2008

This tension with the placeless implications of so functionalist an agenda is offset by adopting local red brick to reflect local landmarks with which it shares some vistas, including the nearby Alleyn's School; and in a desire to be sympathetic, possibly in the knowledge of the radical and alien form that the design represented, the presentation of the design went to some pains to emphasise its roots in history and place. The rectangular piers would “make reference to the basilican structure of many early Christian buildings” but also to South London's Gilbert Scott brick edifices of Battersea and Bankside Powerstations and the Salvation Army Training College in Camberwell. In being reconciled to a locality, and historical context the church declares an intention to belong, but the cosmetic nature of the connection belies an impatience and economy that suggest an extrinsic motivation for the decision. Where the church does engage the locality profoundly is in it continued commitment to local music and art including the retention of organ music, which I will address when I consider the church more phenomenologically, but that as a message, the organ as an active element, a source of creative engagement of the user, gives substance to the symbol. As an avenue for local craft in its construction it speaks of a commitment to the arts, in a costly, sacrificial way. However, this is not by virtue of its design so much as its inclusion at all, and so not so much a symbol as the substance itself.

7 – Organ and Glass at the West End – St Barnabas Church 1997

8 – Reclaimed Wood Cross – Philip Jackson 2008

There is also within this building a message of commemoration, this building now stands on the ground of a much treasured church, lost to an act of recklessness, Stevens recalls that, “For some the shock and pain was an intensely personal and private feeling. Others found the need to express more publicly...their sorrow and anger at the loss of the building which meant so much to them and to the community.” The inclusion in the design of a 15ft suspended cross, formed out of salvaged roof timbers, still burnt at the edges speaks of this desire to remember. JB Jackson writes in the Necessity for Ruins of the “traditional monuments” which in his view put people in mind of some obligation they have incurred...[and] that the potency of such explicitly commemorative monuments lies not in their generalised “aesthetic quality” but in the pointed challenges and demands that they issue: in their power “to recall something specific.. to remind us of obligations, religious and political.” Such monuments, he says do not in the end, please and console people; instead, they alert people to what they should do and how they should act.” which he contrasts with “modern or vernacular monuments,” which simply try “to explain” The inclusion within the design of existing elements from the former church: the baptism font, the exposed but now internal wall to the church centre, the re-formed roof timbers as hanging cross, all serve as testimony to formative history in a time and place. Commenting on the inclusion of architectural features from the the old church in the memorial garden Stevens asserts, “This was an important element in the sense of spiritual and literal pilgrimage and continuity from one era to another which would be inherent in much of the building's symbolism.” In linking the preservation of these architectural wounds to a sense of spiritual formation of future generations suggests not only Jackson's modern monument that explains, but something of the traditional monument which convicts, and has a sense of moral obligation. As with post-war projects, Coventry Cathedral or Berlin's Jewish museum, the sense of loss and anger provokes a radical, loud built response in the spirit of a call to moral change.

9 – Baptism Font Philip Jackson 2008
10 – Worship ‘In the round’ – Philip Jackson 2008

St Barnabas's Church, Dulwich, can be understood in these conscious symbols, and explicit messages that they would hope to convey, but also, there is the implicit and unconscious symbol in a building simply by virtue of its being, and the reflection of its users dwelling as: “A construction, a Greek temple, images nothing. It simply stands in the midst of a rock-cleft valley” Heidegger expands in “The Origin of the Work of Art”, the building unconsciously betrays, as the peasants shoes, a way of life. There is a story and value system that can be read in a building, through the manner in which it reflects the movement and ritual of its users. These values that might be inferred from an evolved form, developed over many years to such a point as, like spoken language, there is a blurring of ultimate primacy – the idea that language speaks man, rather than man speaking language. To this end, although the church is a radical new form, Stevens suggests that the move to worship 'in the round' and the relationship between clergy and congregation is a taking to its logical conclusion moves in the 1980s to re-order the church for a more inclusive celebration of Eucharist. Whilst still a conscious move it is derivative of broader theological and social changes towards less hierarchical structures. The flexible seating could be attributed to moves in society away from commitment and permanence, towards what Schumacher argues is a “footlooseness” and the adoption of a model of consumption of services rendered. At a time when church attendance is surveyed at 6.3% and lower in urban areas, the language used speaks of such a marginalisation, nationally a transient congregation, Stevens even writes of the welcome area ”floored in paving flags to provide a link with the exterior courtyard and symbolising the chaos of the outside world.” As the temple in the rock-cleft valley, this building will conjure a way of life, but one here that is being undermined. Heathcote writes in his conclusion to his essay on the present and future of church architecture that, “Churches are working buildings, more than symbols or monuments, they are excluded from art because they have a function, and because they have a function they lose meaning when that function becomes debased or inhibited."

The discussion thus far has been of design language, the top-down expression of will, the messages and underlying agenda: the desire for a numinous quality set against competing drives for economy and a public voice, ultimately building as symbol. However, an understanding of the building which considers the concurrent participatory bottom-up methods employed will give a broader understanding of the degree to which it achieves “a welcoming place with which the community could identify” and “a place of belonging, outreach and nurture.” One might argue that this self-consciously iconic building fails to sympathise and, by virtue of the publicly perceived foreign American-ness, could be deemed inconducive to community, there is however, a commitment to the arts, and to the building as a vehicle for local expression.

11 – Caroline Swash Stained Glass – Philip Jackson 2008
12 – Caroline Swash – St Barnabas Church 1997

This organic vision, particularly in the stained glass which sees the involvement of local artist and congregant, Caroline Swash, achieves a creatively involved and, according to Alexander, more living structure, that is to say, imbued with more 'life': “Living structures are formed in nature by what he calls the “principle of unfolding wholeness,” which states that “in the evolution of an otherwise undisturbed system, the wholeness is progressively enhanced and intensified.” The stained glass of the large west window was not originally in Malcic's design, and has set a precedent the church is pursuing in continuing to commission work in its other windows, and so adopting something of Alexander's vision for user-engaged, progressively intensified architecture. This principle of involvement in and of itself promotes community, through united local expression, value of the individual, and through the encouraging of craftsman apprentice communities, but can also be viewed as a subscription to a politically weighted process of subverting the dominant paradigm of consumerism and its pre-eminent quest for efficiency. Ecclesiastic architecture in the 21st century lends itself to the counter-cultural or Marxist emphasis even more given its decline to a marginal, no longer the hegemonic status as social model and patron of the arts, where museums have replaced cathedrals as sites of pilgrimage in major cities. In these ways the church adopts Frampton's mode of “resistance” to an alienating global culture, through use of local material and craft skill and through bodily experience.

Stevens ascribes this culture of local arts, a central feature of the Parish's identity to St Barnabas: “Most of the physical alterations to the building were carried out by the small group known as the Monday Men. In many ways the Monday Men are the embodiment of the spirit of St Barnabas the Encourager and the inheritors of the parish's tradition of self-help that originated with the woodcarving in the old church.” This group was responsible for various crafted embellishments, as well and realising Malcic's sketch for a suspended wooden cross.
In the commissioning of furniture to be fitted with the building, whilst not local in the sense of the stained glass and embellishments, there is a concern that the building be a complete work of art of complementary constituent parts, in the vein of Frank Lloyd Wright and Charles Rennie Mackintosh, and should be enhanced by its furnishing. Luke Hughes set out to design in sympathy with the church which he found to be, “clean, quite minimalist and extremely American in style.” Hughes considered there to be an emotional significance in the design and that the by the proportions of the chunky back rail, the chairs might serve to affirm the faith of the congregants as they stood. The chairs here are a point of phenomenological intensity, by their tactile nature they lend themselves to an understanding in the light of Heidegger's hammer, they will withdraw, that is, not before informing the lens through which the architecture is interpreted.

13 – Hughes’ Furniture – Philip Jackson 2008
14 – Hughes Furnitre Design -St Barnabas Church 1997

Finally, in the stained glass there is a further reading of this building, that is provoked by Malcic's vision for the stained glass: “that it should be possible to see through the coloured panels to the world outside, particularly to the natural world of trees and sky, ... the world should not be excluded from the church, but merely distanced.” Which reflects in some way the theology underlying this brief, which seems constantly agnostic as to whether it loves the world. Having adopted an anonymous functionalism to then decorate and having set out to engage the wider community's everyday life to then seek to distance it in this manner. This escapist notion Being in community combined with a tinted view of the locality undermines an honest incarnation and taken to a logical conclusion, the distancing of the world and repainting reality potentially leads to a simulacrum whereby “the boundary between artificiality and reality will become so thin that the artificial will become the centre of moral value”.

In conclusion, St Barnabas's, Dulwich stands out from a rash of recent evangelical warehouses as a result of conscious thought regarding a commitment to place, community and the arts. It is clearly a building in tension, where economic and emotional stakeholders have suppressed a broader social and religious vision, in favour of an essentially loud functionalist structure, which is redeemed centrally by its work at participation towards an unfolding wholeness, in an ongoing project. Vindicating perhaps the lumbering cliché of Mies van der Rohe, that God is in the details.
15 – Oak slats and red brick piers in the west end – Philip Jackson 2008

Clare Stevens (1997) Building for the Future: The Church of St Barnabas - St Barnabas Church, London
Edwin Heathcote and Laura Moffat (2007) Contemporary Church Architecture -John Wiley & Sons, Chichester
Umberto Eco, “Function and Sign: The Semiotics of Architecture” in Gottdiener and Algapoulous (eds.) (1986) The City and the Sign -Columbia University Press, New York (quoted in Jonathan A Hale (2000) Building Ideas: An Introduction to Architectural Theory - John Wiley & Sons, Chichester)
Bernie Miller and Melony Ward (Eds.) (2002) Crime and Ornament, The Arts and Popular Culture in the Shadow of Adolf Loos, XYZ Books
JB Jackson (1980) The Necessity for Ruins -University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst (quoted in Lindsay Jones (2000) The Hermeneutics of Sacred Architecture: Experience, Interpretation, Comparison: Volume Two Hermeneutical Calisthenics: A Morphology of Ritual-Architectural Priorities - Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA, p86)
Martin Heidegger Poetry Language Text (quoted in Mark C Taylor (1987) Altarity - University of Chicago Press, Chicago)
Jonathan A Hale (2000) Building Ideas: An Introduction to Architectural Theory -Chichester, John Wiley & Sons
EF Schumacher (1993) [1973] Small is beautiful: A study of economics as if people mattered - London :Vintage
National Secular Society newsline, 2006 Sep 22 comments on the English Church Census 2005
Christopher Alexander, Nature of Order (2002) quoted in Tom McElligott An Architectural Reflection on Sandra Schneider's Philip Sheldrake’s Understanding of Christian Spirituality (retrieved Jan 14 2008)
Jennifer Cypher and Eric Higgs “Colonizing the Imagination: Disney’s Wilderness Lodge.” (retrieved Jan 12, 2008)
Mies van der Rohe, quoted in the New York Herald Tribune, 28 June 1959 (retrieved Jan 14 2008)

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