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Church triumphant

PROJECT PROFILE: RELIGIOUS BUILDING - George Demetri reports on a church with a very ecumenical response to architectural influences

Architecturally, you don't get much these days for a modest £440,000. Yet the Roman Catholic Parish of Tring has landed an intriguing new church that not only fulfills its liturgical requirements, but includes an abundance of history and symbolism too - and the craftsmanship it displays is simply superb.

Completed in November 1999 after about a year in construction, the Church of Corpus Christi in the charming market town of Tring, Hertfordshire, has been designed by Anthony Delarue Associates.

The architect has shown a thorough understanding of brickwork detailing, as well as a wide range of historic, religious and symbolic sources. The result is a rich visual experience as Romanesque, Classical and Byzantine influences intermingle.

The Victorian ethos is present in the polychromatic brickwork and meticulous attention to detail and, if it all has a strong Arts and Crafts flavour, it is the inevitable result of using traditional materials on a small, typically English scale.

The new church replaces its Edwardian predecessor, which the client was reluctant to see completely demolished. Thus, the tabernacle and gable walls and the campanile on the front elevation have all been incorporated into the new design, while the eight-sided apse and one arcade of the original Edwardian chapel have been rebuilt.

The plan can be broadly identified as that of an early Christian basilica, with an interesting geometry added by an eight-sided baptistery and a sacristy whose irregular shape is determined by the site boundary.

Exterior The external massing of the building is dominated by the tower formed over the crossing, with a pyramidal roof of handmade clay tiles and elegant paletinted clerestory. Jostling for position next to this are the former gable and campanile, although the latter has been heightened with a louvred top.

The architect inherited this collection and the truncated left hand side of the Edwardian gable unfortunately spoils what would otherwise be an equilateral triangle - an element normally symbolising the perfection of the Holy Trinity.

Romanesque elements, such as the semi-circular arched windows made of three courses of header bricks, take their inspiration from the former chapel and are integrated into a classical framework comprising vertical subdivisions that suggest pedestal, shaft, capital and entablature. Walls reuse the fine Luton grey bricks of the old presbytery and are supplemented by new matching bricks, as well as handmade reds.

A Byzantine reference is seen on the pilasters, with their alternate banding of red brick and cream-coloured fair-faced blockwork. A continuous garland of roses above the arched window heads looks deceptively like terracotta, but is in fact very fine clay brick. This was preferred to terracotta, which was deemed more suited to an urban setting.

The building combines detailing that is either subtle or highly evident.

Subtle is the simple keystone detail to the small window on the bell tower, comprising two courses of splayed stretcher bricks. More forceful are the battlements added to a section of the rear elevation. Theses additions are designed to suggest a fortified dimension to the sacristy, which is used to store valuables.

Interior Entrance to the narthex of the church is via a distinctly classical doorway, inspired by houses in the Roman Forum that the architect had measured as a student. The continuous brick arcade surrounding the nave and sanctuary emphasises the basilica plan. Brickwork is exposed throughout the interior, whether for walls or piers. The exuberant detailing, so characteristic of the outside, is mostly toned down to flat, unadorned surfaces on the inside.

Even so, considerable warmth is imparted by the red string courses on the piers and aisle walls. The ambience is enhanced by low winter sunshine, tinted by the rose, lilac and yellow panes of the clerestory glazing.

The combination of brickwork and timber is particularly effective. Stout trusses of stained European redwood support the nave roof, while aisle roofs have a simple exposed beam structure to support their low pitches. More dramatic is the roof structure of the tower, comprising a hierarchy of king and queen posts and diagonal bracing to form a symbolic 'crown' directly above the altar.

Yet all these diverse elements somehow come together to form a rich tapestry of architectural and ecclesiastical history that is just waiting to be unravelled by the observant eye.

This may take some time but, like any good work, repays the effort.

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