The client of Niall McLaughlin’s Stirling Prize-shortlisted Chapel Martyn Percy tells of the creation of the award-winning building
Although it is something of a cliché to say churches are ‘sermons in stone’, the very design, layout and physicality of a church building convey spiritual sentience and religious resonance. To try and ‘read’ a church otherwise is to entirely misunderstand its purpose: gathering for worship. Churches are spaces that take us to another place. They point us upward to God, inward to reflect, and outward to a world that is both created and awaiting redemption.
Niall McLaughlin’s Stirling Prize-nominated design for the Bishop Edward King Chapel at Ripon College, Cuddesdon, Oxford – essentially a ship, or large coracle – is rooted in a remarkable Gaelic Christian legend, and recounted in a poem by Seamus Heaney, Lightenings viii.
The annals say: when the monks of Clonmacnoise
Were all at prayers inside the oratory
A ship appeared above them in the air.
The anchor dragged along behind so deep
It hooked itself into the altar rails
And then, as the big hull rocked to a standstill,
A crewman shinned and grappled down the rope
And struggled to release it. But in vain.
‘This man can’t bear our life here and will drown,’
The abbot said, ‘unless we help him.’ So
They did, the freed ship sailed, and the man climbed back
Out of the marvellous as he had known it.
The verse, much like McLaughlin’s architecture, leans on ancient ideas of Christian space. The ‘nave’ of a church comes from the same term from which we derive the word ‘naval’. One of the earliest Christian symbols, apart from the cross, was that of a ship – conveying the idea of pilgrimage – the soul in transition, or the journey from this life to the next. More specifically, one thinks of the boat tossed on the storms of Sea of Galilee and the fear of the disciples – yet the boat does not sink because of the presence of Jesus (Matthew 8: 23-27). The story, taken as literal or as metaphor, simply says: ‘You will not be overcome by the storms of life; be still, and trust in God.’
McLaughlin has created a uniquely holy space that anchors women and men in their evolving vocations. The building provides a unique, inspiring and beautiful frame of reference that is open in character and texture.
As you encounter the space in stillness, you quickly absorb the sense of the use of light, space, materials and design; all combining to produce an awareness of being carried and held, yet also freed and offered. The building is essentially perichoretic – the ‘mutual indwelling’ of material and spiritual currents, which blend and interpenetrate, producing new spiritual meanings. The use of colour (bare, minimal) means that the natural light does all the work, and the worshipper is simply left with a sense of being bathed in warm, numinous buttermilk.
The chapel does not seek to impose; yet it cannot fail to inspire. Most people, when they enter for the first time, simply gasp; then whisper a single ‘wow’. Then they fall silent, subsumed by the simplicity and intricacy of it all.
Martyn Percy is the Dean of Christ Church, Oxford. From 2004-14 he was principal of Ripon College, Cuddesdon, where the new Edward King Chapel was completed in 2013
RIBA Award winners
St Mary of Eton Church, London by Matthew Lloyd Architects
Client Thornsett Group
Contractor PJ Hegarty & Sons
Contract value £6.5 million
Gross internal area 3,517m²
Three new buildings, which include 31 residential units, a new church centre and community facilities are constructed in a red brick, in response to the original church. They vary in scale and form but are brought together by the application of a diamond pattern in the brickwork, which is applied to all the new elevations. The patterning, carried through with consistency and conviction, draws the cluster of buildings into a single collegiate group, avoiding what might otherwise have slipped into a ‘default deferential’ approach.
The scheme makes ingenious use of a surprisingly tightly constrained site. The highly articulated elevations of the wedge block are determined by right-to-light considerations. By concentrating the new elements close to the boundaries, a strong, clear and delightful courtyard is created for much of the housing to look over.
Sheffield Cathedral Gateway Project by Thomas Ford & Partners
Client The Dean and Chapter of Sheffield Cathedral
Contractor William Anelay
Contract value £2.88 million
Gross internal area 1,200m²
The scheme creates a new front door for the cathedral by closing in a 1960s faux-Gothic porch, demolishing a link, and building a new entrance in stone and stainless steel.
Its hexagonal plan works perfectly, and the use of vertical stainless-steel fins brings to mind Spence’s Chapel of Industry at Coventry, asserting a contemporary architecture that stands up against the existing building without challenging it. Perhaps the cipher for this project is the stainless steel handrail climbing up into the new shop, which becomes an angled handle when the door is closed.
This work by a modest architect, who knew everything about the building and the liturgical tapestry that underlies it, has given a delighted client everything it could have wished for and transformed the cathedral into a welcoming community asset.