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Conservation: St Patrick's Church, Soho Square, London

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Technical & Practice: Castanon Associates put its faith in simplicity for the renovation of St Patrick’s church in London’s Soho Square, writes Felix Mara

Some architects trade on their ability to make the simple look complex, but the best have a knack for making the complicated look easy.

Castanon Associates’ renovation and alteration work at the Roman Catholic church of St Patrick’s in London’s Soho Square makes light work of building over a Crossrail tunnel, uncertain ground conditions, potential archaeological discoveries, Historic Churches Committee procedures, liturgical questions and erratic funding.

The brief was to restore and modernise the existing fabric and provide a multi-purpose hall, classrooms, meeting rooms and toilets for the church, which re-opened in May. The strategy was to locate this new accommodation in an extended basement, as there was nowhere else on the site to go. Having established that the existing floor was not part of the original Victorian church, Castanon Associates was able to propose its replacement by a new composite deck that did not require propping, freeing up the construction work below and supporting scaffolding above. ‘From then on, it was a two-horse race,’ says Javier Castañón, director of Castanon Associates. ‘Above, it was very slow and meticulous; below, it was very fast.’

nave_trypticNave triptych: Click to enlarge

Above ground, the team had to tackle practical difficulties such as deteriorating paint and plaster, damp, dry rot and inadequate heating and lighting, although the church’s Grade II* listing limited what could be done to improve energy efficiency. Beyond this, there were questions of liturgy and its interpretation.

From this perspective, Castañón’s design is most notable for what it doesn’t do. There is no blurring of the boundary between the nave and sanctuary, which is in keeping with the contemporary focus outlined by Father Peter Newby. The parish priest of St Mary Moorfields, son of the engineer Frank Newby and an architecture graduate himself, Fr. Newby chaired the church’s building committee and put the project team together.

Jaen Castañón, Javier’s brother and co-director of Castanon Associates, who worked as architect-curator on Toledo cathedral in Spain, also played a crucial role. He wanted the interior of the church to reflect the aspirations of its architect, John Kelly, of the Leeds practice Kelly & Birchall. The series of redecoration projects that occurred soon after its 1893 completion suggest Kelly’s vision of St Patrick’s never fully materialised. In the absence of original drawings, Jaen interpreted his ideas as thoroughly Italian Renaissance, consistent with the church’s likely provenance in the overall shape of Alberti’s Sant’Andrea in Mantua and in the detail of Santo Spirito in Florence. The essential components of this new interpretation are light, materials and finishes.

Javier Castañón wanted daylight to enter through un-tinted windows, to be reflected by gold leaf used to identify the sanctuary and emphasise the cornice below the clerestory. Rather than blasting the vault with floodlights, subtle, indirect lighting comes from cold cathode lamps hidden from view by the ledges that support them. In addition, conduit tucked behind vaulting ribs feeds lightweight bespoke suspended fittings for direct lighting accents. Heat detectors are also concealed by sightlines and, where possible, heating is buried in the floor screed below the marble floor that has replaced the 1920s green terrazzo.

At basement level, where the church provides a twice-weekly meal for homeless people, Castañón renovated the existing fabric and inserted a vastly improved kitchen and large multi-purpose hall that provides more connectivity between the existing accommodation at the east and west ends of the site.

The depth of excavation was limited by a proposed Crossrail tunnel below the site, which meant underfloor heating was not viable as every millimetre of floor build-up would have an impact on the basement’s ceiling height. Overhead services run in the suspended ceiling, with deep coffers that provide height as well as a sense of gravitas.

Things might easily have gone awry in the basement. Luckily, excavation revealed that the existing foundations on the north side of the church were deep enough to support the new basement construction and the archaeologists were able to finish the dig before the deadline set by Crossrail. 

The basement ventilation system employs heat recovery to draw warmth from extracted air, which it uses to raise supply air temperatures. To save energy, CO2 sensors monitor the occupancy level and regulate air volume control dampers and fan speeds.

Artificial lighting in the basement prioritises energy efficiency, using T5 fluorescent lamps, but Castañón has also introduced daylight to provide psychological relief. ‘The human eye picks up even low levels of natural light,’ he says, referring to daylight channelled into the basement by the glazed shaft of the new lift.

On the principle that work to historic churches should not lower existing fire safety levels, this lift has a one-hour fire curtain. More daylight comes in through windows in the semicircular lecture room below the apse where existing piers were removed, and also through a top-lit stair with glass treads and an acid-etched glass floor. This alleyway leads to a side entrance at the top of a short flight of glass steps, cantilevered from the wall below its threshold, which avoids touching the ground.

These additions to the ancillary accommodation, beyond the nave, sanctuary and narthex are executed in a modern idiom that feels natural. It may look simple, but it isn’t.

Client’s view

Any mention of transcendence in architecture will have most practising architects stifling a yawn, as if this was something best left to the dustier parts of architecture school and European intellectuals.

Distrust of certain continental philosophical theories may be well founded, but this form of universal scepticism is in danger of failing to grasp a key facet of humanity, the ability to undertake conscious directed activity, that looks beyond the immediate situation.

The ability to make decisions, and to move out from a determined past into a projected future, demonstrates the transcendental underpinning of every human action. The existence of this immaterial centre, or the soul, in classical terms, is both the generator of meaning, symbol and language, and the faculty to understand, and penetrate the meaning, symbol and language of the world.

An appreciation of the power of the intellect, will and heart may remain unconscious in the struggle of daily life, but this is not always the case. The pursuit of survival has always involved co-operation with others, as made obvious in the use of language, the lasting power of collective memory and conjugal love to perpetuate the race.

Survival has always been cloaked with deeper meaning, to create, what is called civilisation. These civilised communities distinguish good from evil in terms of flourishing and destruction. This, in the classical tradition, is the foundation of natural law, codified as the command, ‘do good, avoid evil’.

The flourishing of human society, the greater desire ‘to choose life’ gives architecture its immaterial foundation, and explains why all conscious design and building carries with it an implicit meaning. There may be large differences of opinion as to what constitutes the flourishing of society, but what unites even the most disparate theories, traditions and designs is the same transcendental desire. Architecture always points beyond itself from within itself, and thus possesses transcendental meaning.

Architecture in the words of Dalibor Vesely, ‘is the transcendental plane of culture’, and broadly any culture may be judged by its architectural output.  The concept of function, derived from natural law, is not the shrunken concept of utility beloved by modernists with its particular moral connotations, but something much broader, a concern with life itself.

The purpose of any building, is a particular response to the broader question of human flourishing, and with that a sense of our origin and destiny. But just as meaning is found in the depths of human action, so is it found in nature and in the products of artistic production. Any discussion of aesthetics, is founded on the human ability to abstract meaning from the created world, natural and man-made.

The material quality of building makes an immediate impact on the senses, but the building also stimulates the imagination with regard to the disposition of solid and void, and light and dark, and so forth. This stimulation engenders a response, and so beauty can be seen to reside both in the artwork/building and in the person engaged with artwork or building. The scope and role of aesthetics in architecture requires more than a few words, but none of this could make sense without an appreciation of the spiritual nature of men and women.

The question of transcendence in architecture moves from the background to the foreground with regard to the design and re-ordering of Churches with which I have been involved for the last ten years. The restoration of St Patrick’s, Soho Square, is just the most recent example of a new trend emerging in Catholic architecture that is responding to the quiet revolution taking place with regard to Catholic worship. The English speaking Church has been issued with a revised translation of the universal Latin Mass. This revised translation is more God centred in its translation compared to the over enthusiastic emphasis on human goodness, itself a product of 1960s optimism.

This current phase of architectural restoration may be described as the ‘re-ordering of the re-orderings’. During the 1960s a certain iconoclasm overcame the Church, and many fine Victorian interiors were ripped out in the name of active congregation involvement and contemporary liturgical thinking.

The tragedy, for the Church, was that this destruction became closely associated in the mind of critics with the intention of the Second Vatican Council, (an entire world Church meeting that took place in Rome from 1962 to 1965). Fifty years later these early efforts at transforming Churches to fit the then new liturgy, and the building of new Churches in the 1960s has begun to look inadequate to the task now proposed by the Church. The sense of transcendence took second place to the need to provide cheap and easily buildable Churches in the decades of expansion and a low brow functionalism became the order of the day.

The contemporary focus is to see the Church as simultaneously a place to worship God and to look outwards towards the world. This differs greatly from the pedestrian understanding of the community gathered together to reinforce its sense of self-worth.

The celebration of Mass had become a busy affair, with constant movement of lay assistants onto the sanctuary (the area around the altar), a place which became almost indistinguishable from the nave (the place where the congregation sits). The new direction is more contemplative, with greater periods of silence for prayer, and with a greater distinction between the sanctuary and the nave.

There has been a greater appreciation on beauty as a tool for preaching the Gospel that responds to our common humanity. The arguments over current religious architecture have brought to the fore many issues over transcendence and architecture which have lain dormant for too long.

Father Peter Newby, parish priest, St Mary Moorfields, chairman of the Building Committee of St Patrick’s, Soho Square and chairman of the Westminster Diocese Art and Architecture Committee


Start on site April 2010
Contract duration 52 weeks
Total gross internal floor area 1,261m2, including 575m2 new construction in basement
Form of contract JCT Intermediate Rev 2 2009
Total cost £2,345,757
Cost per square metre £2,400
Client Westminster Roman Catholic Diocese Trustees
Structural engineer Sinclair Johnston & Partners
M&E consultant Hannaford Upright
Quantity surveyor Godmon Partnership
CDM co-ordinator Goddard Consulting
Approved building inspector STMC Building Control
Main contractor F B Ellmer
Lighting consultant Liminaires
Archaeology consultant IHCM
Party wall surveyor GVA Schatunowski Brooks
Annual lighting load 10,700kWh or 20.576kWh/m2
Archaeology contractor Pre-Construct Archaeology
Average background illuminance 200 lux
Average wallwashing illuminance 400 lux
Decoration, gilding, marble and stone effects Historic Interiors
Church furniture Ormsby of Scarisbrick
Marble floor contractor Henny
Project manager Castanon Associates
Marble supplier Bernacca
Under floor heating Warmafloor
Sound Sound By Design
Lift Otis
Glass and steel staircase Specialized Fabrications

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