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Architecture with a social mission

David Canter looks at a new book which considers the architecture of the Salvation Army movement.

The popular idea of the Salvation Army is of brass bands playing Victorian hymn tunes, collecting money for the homeless. What is less often appreciated is that this public face hides a vast, international network of interlinked organisations which interpret the Christian mission as being to serve the community, especially those less fortunate.

Original design drawing for York Citadel, 1882

Original design drawing for York Citadel, 1882

Unlike many other religious organisations Salvationists see themselves bringing God to the masses by how they live their lives and the help they can bring to others.

Edmonton Citadel, north London

Edmonton Citadel, north London

From its inception the Salvation Army’s mission grew out of awareness of the desperate plight of the poor and disadvantaged as well as the need to bring Christianity to people in as accessible a way as possible. This required buildings that would suit their purposes.  Consequently, from its earliest days it had its own architects’ office, staffed mainly by Salvationists.

L'islet Fortress Hall, 1889 building

L’islet Fortress Hall, 1889 building

Given the Christian emphases of the Salvation Army I should record my own rabid atheism and my conviction that many of the problems humanity has suffered has been caused by organised religion.  Yet my contacts with the Salvation Army and especially its architects, through the author of this book, Lieutenant Colonel Ray Oakley, have impressed me with how positive religious fervour can be when it is channelled into helping others with hardly any strings attached.

Youell Court, Binley, opened in March 2001.

Youell Court, Binley, opened in March 2001.

The fascinating aspect of the book Ray Oakley has put together on the range and history of Salvation Army architecture is how a humane mission has been reflected in the very bricks and mortar of the buildings they have produced over the last century and a quarter. The mission to serve, and as Oakley puts it emphasise ‘holy people, rather than holy things’ has generated an unassuming architecture that contributes to its communities rather than shouting at them. 

Here are no great cathedrals or lavish community halls, but carefully thought through, hostels for the homeless, meeting halls and housing.  The needs of the users are always paramount rather than symbolic expression, probably encouraged by the tight budgets under which everything has to be built.

Southwark Corps Hall, following 2005 renovations

Southwark Corps Hall, following 2005 renovations

As this delightfully illustrated book shows, often earlier designs were a little more responsive to ‘Army’ imagery than would be regarded as appropriate today.  Some of these early building were called ‘citadels’  or even ‘fortresses’ and their castellations, battlements decorated with Crusader crosses and squat turrets gave more than a hint that they housed a quasi-military force. Perhaps not so ‘quasi’, when Salvationists are called soldiers, have ranks and have to go where they are posted by senior officers.

William Booth Training College by Giles Gilbert Scott (1929), a forerunner of his New University Library, West Road, Cambridge (1934)

William Booth Training College by Giles Gilbert Scott (1929), a forerunner of his New University Library, West Road, Cambridge (1934)

The establishment of considered, effective building across the UK and beyond led to The Salvation Army becoming a resource that the government of the day often drew upon.  An intriguing example of this was Home Office commission towards the end of the Second World War to design and build ‘approved schools’ for girls whose behaviour was deemed delinquent. The design and regime were closely integrated, but although the Christian emphasis of the schools was seen as a positive contribution to the rehabilitation of the girls, the building forms themselves were as domestic and unassuming as was possible. Local materials and bright spaces helped to reduce the feeling these were a form of imprisonment and religious icons kept to a minimum.

Hemel Hempstead Hall

Hemel Hempstead Hall

More recently conference centres, international headquarters, and youth facilities have come off Salvation Army drawing boards.   The quality of these designs is shown by the fact that buildings as varied as The William Booth Memorial Centre in Nottingham, The Bristol Citadel Corps and the International Headquarters in the City of London, have all received architectural and design awards.  This is no mean feat for an architectural office staffed by people who regard themselves as soldiers for Christ working with extremely constrained finances.

Coventry Citadel, 1959

Coventry Citadel, 1959

To The Glory of God provides a thorough account of the architectural work of the Salvation Army and so is of value in showing how a significant architecture and design office has evolved over 122 years. But perhaps more importantly it illustrates how architecture can grow hand-in-hand with a social mission. This provides a steady counterbalance to the excitement generated by Norman Foster or Frank Gehry.  We can enjoy the grand gestures of their museums and high status office blocks, but for buildings that support the daily activities of flesh and blood there is a lot to be learnt from the Salvation Army.

David Canter Emeritus Professor, The University of Liverpool

Readers' comments (1)

  • David Cantor's appraisal is timely and well said. Ray Oakley's 'To the Glory of God' is a fine scholarly work of record of prime source material for the future historians. For The Salvation Army's buildings to be high key aesthetically, conforming to present day expectation of some architectural critics, is to miss-understands the nature of The Army's work.
    G. Fairley

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