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Symbols of salvation

Flying the flag for the poor and elderly still underpins the work of the Salvation Army Architects

'I think we're one of the oldest practices in London,' says David Greenwood, chief architect at the Salvation Army Architects (saa). The practice was formed in 1882 under E J Sherwood, when the Army began to acquire its own buildings, and worked from an office at its international headquarters in Queen Victoria Street, near Blackfriars, until it moved to its present quarters on Newington Causeway earlier this year.

The military imagery, satirised in Major Barbara and Guys and Dolls, permeated its early architecture. The Army's first meeting halls, built around the turn of the century in high streets throughout the country, were termed 'citadels'. Red brick facades had battlemented parapets and flanking towers decorated with crusader cross openings. For the most part these citadels are now obsolete but, in recognition of their historic importance, the saa has adopted a drawing of the Sheffield citadel as its logo.

The Army's theatre and music-hall origins are as important as its military traditions. These date back to the earliest mission meetings during the 1870s conducted by founder Reverend William Booth in East End theatres and music halls on Sunday evenings, when licensing laws prohibited public performances. The theatre layout of centralised performers and wrap-around audience seating still influences the design of many larger Army buildings today.

An example is the saa-designed conference centre, just completed at Sunbury- on-Thames for the five-yearly meeting of world leaders to elect a new general. Sunbury Court incorporates state of the art conference facilities.

'There is a kind of house style developing,' says Greenwood of the practice's recent projects. 'With the evangelical buildings it tends to be an octagonal format with ancillary rooms and flexibility for other uses. We often incorporate Army symbolism: the roof light on top is in the colours of the Army flag and has a star motif. But the buildings tend to be fairly formal because there is still a militaristic style to the organisation.'

At present the saa is a small unit within the Army's Property Department. It has a staff of seven - five architects, and two assistants (only Greenwood is an Army member), but they are hoping to return to employing year-out students to help with their workload. Staff numbers were cut back drastically during the recession and decreased further when the Army started to regionalise its national headquarters in the mid- 1990s. The 18 regional offices appoint property managers with responsibility for local small-to-medium sized projects. 'It's the way things are going,' says Greenwood, echoing the sentiments of the profession at large, 'people opting for cheap package deals, the popularity of design and build, everyone trying to minimise the input of architects.'

The saa has an average of 10 projects on the drawing board at any one time. It concentrates on larger schemes which will have an impact throughout the organisation. 'Our role is to set the standard in design ideas,' say Greenwood. 'We know the Army's work and we try to do strategic projects for other people to work from.' Projects in the main include worship and community halls, hostels, detoxification centres, and, increasingly, 'Eventide' homes for the elderly.

Senior architect Patrick Spears is in charge of Youell Court, an elderly people's residence near Coventry. It departs from the convention of placing all units at ground level; instead en-suite bedrooms are accommodated in three-storey blocks arranged in cluster units around internal courtyards, producing an identifiable community group and security. Spears says that this also reduces the distances that residents have to travel to meals, or to visit each other. Instead of walking they take lifts, saving time and energy. He is designing Youell Court to nursing-home standards to ensure the comfort and safety of the increasing numbers of frail elderly members of the community seeking sheltered accommodation. 'It's a flagship scheme which we hope will set a pattern,' says Spears. The land was donated to the Army, together with a gift of £1 million, almost a third of the total cost.

Many of the army's old citadels are showing their age and need to be replaced. Many are in conservation areas and obtaining planning permission for replacement buildings is not always easy. The new Brighton Congress Hall is about to be built on the site of a demolished citadel. The design incorporates references from its Regency environment, ranging from zinc canopies and aprons to the slate roof. The design was developed using a 3D cad modelling system. The plan form is again octagonal. This hall will double as a community centre during the week and a place of worship at weekends.

The Salvation Army is probably best known for its work with the poor. In the 1890s the Reverend William Booth hired empty warehouses where the homeless would be offered a square meal and a box bed for the night. This type of work continues in association with the Salvation Army Housing Association. The saa has been responsible for a series of new hostels, although far removed from the warehouses and 'coffin' beds of the past. One of the most recent, in Westminster, has accommodation for 100 residents, running counter to modern thinking that 40 beds is the acceptable norm. But Greenwood points out that it is difficult to run hostels economically on this scale. There is no limit on how long people can stay in Army hostels and rooms are uniformly designed to a high standard.

A new venture for the saa team is the rehabilitation of buildings on an Essex farm, where the Army formerly taught farming skills to the unemployed, as extensions to a training centre for people with learning difficulties. A foyer-style hostel and a heritage/visitor centre will be integrated into a new organic-farming programme.

Spears joined the saa shortly after he graduated and has been working there for 11 years. He says there is very little turnover among staff, in spite of the heavy workload. 'It's a bit like an apprenticeship. You're thrown in at the deep end here but there's no substitute for actually building buildings.'

The office visits high-profile practices and occasionally organises architectural trips abroad. On a recent visit to Paris, they visited Mario Botta's cathedral at Evry, and also the Cite de Refuge, designed by Le Corbusier for the French branch of the Army, where, says Greenwood, 'We were treated like royalty.'

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