‘What visitors might instinctively appreciate is its obvious clarity and integrity, which will surely articulate their impression,’ writes Joseph Rykwert
Cuddesdon College, five miles east of Oxford, served the Church of England as one of its main theological schools for a century and a half, providing it with several archbishops of Canterbury. It was long associated with the old university (though prudently distanced from its many temptations), lately also with Oxford Brookes, so forming a part of the larger academic community. It had opened in appropriately severe French Gothic buildings, the first work of George Edmund Street. He later also added a chapel, now too small for the community as well as liturgically inappropriate, since the college has broadened, incorporating other institutions, most recently the Sisters of St John the Baptist from nearby Kidlington. In 2009, a competition was therefore held for a new chapel, dedicated to the saintly 19th-century principal who went on to become bishop of Lincoln.
It was won by Niall McLaughlin Architects and the building - which is now complete - is as thoughtful a piece of architecture as has gone up in this country in recent decades. In giving his own account of it, McLaughlin has generously acknowledged his literary, liturgical and even his architectural precedents, of which the most obvious is the elliptical church of St Michael in Frankfurt, built by Rudolf Schwarz 60 years ago. It seems much more a point of departure than a model for Cuddesdon, since Schwarz uses his much narrower ellipse as a conventionally arranged, long and flat-roofed nave, while at Cuddesdon the curved internal space moulds an antiphonal arrangement. It is more inclusive than at St Michael’s, but also more enfolding than the two facing straight lines of a traditional college chapel. The two geometrical foci of the ellipse locate the altar and the lectern, the twin liturgical generators of the space: the Eucharist and the Spoken Word.
The exterior cavity walls are of Clipsham stone (a limestone very like that of Street’s original buildings) on the outside, but white-painted (over plaster) brick on the inside. The internal structure is of glulam wood whose tapered columns rise into criss-crossing, arched beams suggesting the old fable that Gothic vaulting was inspired by the criss-cross of branches in a forest.
The timber structure is free enough of the walls at ground level to stake out an ambulatory which allows a visitor continuous passage around the interior, while the independence of the structure from the outer walls is displayed by the tall glazed clerestory through which the branches of the surrounding trees offer an echo of the >> vaulting legend. The frame supports a roof that is flat on the outside, but internally takes up the shape of a boat’s keel, playing on a traditional image associated with the church: the Latin navis means both nave and ship, the traditional symbol of that institution always navigating in troubled waters. McLaughlin also associates it with a Celtic legend of a ghostly airborne ship seen from below by the monks at Clonmacnoise, which Seamus Heaney reported in a poem.
The site of the chapel is a hollow, set among many venerable trees; you enter it through a low, neutral, flat-roofed porch which separates the sacristy from the chapel proper. They form an orthogonal unit extruded from the space of the chapel, whose curved outer wall is sharply articulated into three zones: that regularly jointed ashlar stone at the lowest level, rising out of the ground, and a high middle one of heavily textured regular but cropped stones laid in a dog-toothed bond. Above that again rises the stone-louvred and glazed clerestory. The variegated but smoothly ashlar ground floor allows the elliptical geometry of the chapel cylinder to maintain its integrity as it swells out into such utilities as the porch and sacristy I mentioned. But it also allows for some special requirements: a top-lit chapel for the sisters’ regular recitation of the daily office is visually connected to the reserved sacrament niche across the nave, but is also given a separate entrance which will permit direct access to a convent house, as yet unbuilt. The niche for the reserved sacrament adjoins another projection from the wall - a bay intended for private prayer. A slender wooden belfry rises close to the chapel wall, between the sacristy and the sisters’ chapel.
All these incidents at the ashlar level point up the clean geometry of the elliptical cylinder rising out of them, and emphasise its integrity in the grove of splendid, mature trees. Its configuration serves to recall another of McLaughlin’s inspirations, Gottfried Semper’s mid 19th-century account of the four primary skills from which all the arts derive. The ashlar basement would correspond to Semper’s heaping up of masonry; the wooden frame to his whittling and fitting of carpentry; the glass and metal to his moulding and baking; and finally the roughly textured stone wall to his weaving and knotting, which in a way is the truly primary skill: the daisy chain, he once maintained, is the first work of art.
Will many future users of the building, or even a casual visitor, ever divine the complexity of such references? Surely not; what they might instinctively appreciate though is the obvious clarity and integrity of the work, which - even in spite of them - will surely articulate their impression. And of course, over the coming years users and visitors will make their own readings of what they see and experience. McLaughlin is too canny an operator to find such a future daunting or even surprising, yet whatever they make of the chapel, I suspect that future worshippers and visitors will find its intricate structure rewarding.
Joseph Rykwert is Paul Philippe Cret professor of architecture emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania
Niall McLaughlin, director, Niall Mclaughlin Architects
What was your initial design concept?
Beneath the big beech tree, on the brow of the hill, an elliptical earthwork, full of shifting light.
Did the executed project differ from this initial concept?
It became stonier.
What elements of the surrounding context does the building draw upon?
What was the client’s input?
The competition brief was like a prayer or a poem. The design discussions were open, supportive and very demanding.
What was the most challenging aspect of the project - and why?
It is hard to say. It was one of the easiest buildings I ever worked on. Great craftsmen on site, overseen by fantastic project architects, Maria, Tim and Joanna. I didn’t want it to end. One real intellectual challenge was to resolve the structural and acoustic physics of the frame within the elliptical walls. Tim Marcot on structures and Paul Gillieron on acoustics were superb collaborators.
What is the most important lesson you have taken from this project?
Sometimes you just have to step back and say, ‘this is really enjoyable, it’s why I became an architect’. When you get a job like this, you have to savour it.
Where does this building sit within the evolution of the practice?
A certain liberation from the rule. The arrival of a more artless confidence.