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The Crypt at Christ Church Spitalfields by Dow Jones Architects

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This restoration brings life, lightness and a certain domesticity to a re-energised space, says Owen Hopkins


There’s a photograph of the nave of Nicholas Hawksmoor’s Christ Church, Spitalfields, that sticks in my mind like few others. Taken by Bill Toomey in 1974, the photograph shows not the pristinely restored interior familiar to anyone entering the church today, but a scene of dilapidation, something akin to a Roman ruin. Despite the stacks of old mattresses, piles of newspapers and bits of old broken pew, we see an architectural space that even after years of neglect and mistreatment still bears its characteristic strikingly Baroque grandeur.

Shortly after Toomey took his photograph, restoration works began, which over time saw the complete overhaul of the building, including most significantly the reinstatement of the original interior layout and the galleries that had been removed in the 1860s. While this work was completed in 2004, the organ, a fine 1734 instrument by Richard Bridge, and the crypt were left unrestored, to be tackled at a later date. Thanks to a donation from the Monument Trust, which had also supported the earlier restoration work, these final two projects, both overseen by Dow Jones Architects, are now complete, bringing to a close a marathon 40-year programme.

The result creates a rich dialogue with the rawness of Hawksmoor’s original fabric

Biba Dow and Alun Jones have made something of a name for themselves working with historic churches, first at the Garden Museum (2007–09), which is housed in the deconsecrated St Mary-at-Lambeth, at Corpus Christi in Brixton (2010–11) and now at Christ Church. A crypt is, however, a rather different proposition to working in the main body of a church. Put crudely, one is a space for the living, the other for the dead. At Christ Church, though, the crypt actually was not intended to be used at all. In typically practical fashion, Hawksmoor’s former master, Christopher Wren, had warned about the structural problems that can result from using crypts for burials. Thus, the function of Hawksmoor’s crypt was to raise the church up into the dominant position it occupies even now, standing tall over Spitalfields.

Despite Wren’s warnings, the crypt began to be used for burials soon after the church’s completion. Over the years, it has housed an air-raid shelter during the Blitz (memorably recorded in photographs by Bill Brandt) and a night shelter for alcoholic men run by the Spitalfields Crypt Trust, and been used for everything from parish business to storage and the occasional art exhibition. The crypt even accommodated church services while the nave underwent repairs.

The first thing Dow Jones did was to strip it all back, first conceptually, and then physically

By the time of the crypt competition in 2008, the accretions of this succession of different uses had left the space heavily compartmentalised. So the first thing Dow Jones did was to strip it all back, first conceptually, and then physically, as work began, to reveal the overall space that Hawksmoor would have known. They then began the process of inserting the programme, which comprised a mixture of uses: public café, parish lounge, WCs, a catering kitchen to service the events held in the nave, and a small chapel.

A key early move was to use York stone paving, which runs uninterrupted from the street down the ramp and throughout the crypt, to give the space a sense of unity and a material connection to the city outside that isn’t forced. Once inside, taking a cue from Hawksmoor’s nave, oak panelling is used for the insertions that delimit the various aspects of the programme (while almost imperceptibly carrying the services), in essence, defining the ‘place of habitation’. Unlike upstairs, however, here, the panelling is left unvarnished and light – again creating a material connection that isn’t pushed too hard. The deliberate kinks and off-set windows in these new insertions highlight the spatial irregularities of the vaulting, which, given the patchwork of repairs to which it has been subjected over the years, is sensibly whitewashed. The supporting piers, in contrast, are stripped and left raw, revealing their rich patina.

Entering the crypt from noisy Commercial Street, it is something of a surprise to find a calm, natural light permeating to its heart. While the distinction between old and new was one of the architect’s guiding principles, the result creates a rich dialogue with the rawness of Hawksmoor’s original fabric – one that brings life, lightness and a certain domesticity to this re-energised space.

Owen Hopkins’ new book, From the Shadows: The Architecture and Afterlife of Nicholas Hawksmoor, is published this month

The Crypt at Christ Church Spitalfields, by Dow Jones Architects

The Crypt at Christ Church Spitalfields, by Dow Jones Architects


Biba Dow, partner, Dow Jones Architects

The brief for the project was to provide separate but flexible spaces for performance, prayer and the parish, as well as a café. Back of house services include WCs, offices and a catering kitchen able to service events in the nave (which vary from receptions for 600 people to dinners for 250). The ambition was for the crypt to feel connected to, but different from the nave, to operate independently, but also to support activities happening in the nave.

The Crypt at Christ Church Spitalfields, by Dow Jones Architects

The Crypt at Christ Church Spitalfields, by Dow Jones Architects

Architect’s view

Biba Dow, partner, Dow Jones Architects

This project makes the crypt a public space and part of the life of the City of London, on whose edge it is built.

This marginal condition is as relevant now as it was in 1729: a juxtaposition which brings with it a special cultural dynamic.

Hawksmoor’s west elevation is designed both as a triumphal arch and city gate, explicitly using this iconography to represent the connection between centre and edge.

To emphasise that edge condition within the crypt, we made an urban topography with a ramp of york stone that explicitly connects the ground of the city to the space of the crypt. The material of the pavement extends throughout the crypt and makes a public space inside. The crypt’s vaulted structure becomes an urban space, like Venice’s fish market, open to accommodate the life of the city around it.

New rooms are placed around the stone columns like small timber buildings within the city, clearly distinct from the crypt structure. These define the places in between the edge and centre of the city.

The first step involved stripping away paint and partitions, revealing Hawksmoor’s structure. A significant moment in the contract was halting the works after demolition to photograph the crypt as one space, unseen since the 1740s.

We wanted to make a clear distinction between old and new, maintaining open views, and have revealed, rather than covered up. The brick vaulting is lime-rendered and lime-washed to unify the space of the vaults and reflect light.

The Crypt at Christ Church Spitalfields, by Dow Jones Architects

The Crypt at Christ Church Spitalfields, by Dow Jones Architects

Engineer’s view

Peter Roberts, OR Consult

Our services design strives to be sensitive to the architectural, archaeological and conservation goals of the project while providing an energy-efficient solution. The client’s brief specified densely occupied public spaces with high internal thermal gain during events, which made some form of cooling provision necessary.

The provision of external mechanical cooling plant was considered inappropriate for this historic setting and, while the team did consider the use of ground source technologies for heating and cooling, they were rejected because the site is built on an ancient burial site and the vaulted roof of the crypt was too low to accommodate a boring rig. Instead, our design focus turned to the opportunities represented by the fabric of the building itself, exploiting its thermal mass, thermal stability and the large surface area of the below-ground tunnels and crypt as a heat sink.

A fresh air ventilation system (with heat recovery for winter operation) was designed to pull air through the undercroft tunnels to cool it before introducing it, via low-velocity air terminals,within the technical walls.

To maintain design conditions during occupied hours and to cool the spaces during summer nights, the fans are controlled by room temperature sensors, further sensors measuring the temperature of the heavyweight structure, and external sensors. Dynamic thermal modelling showed that the performance hall temperature could be maintained below its set point for a period of five hours using these passive cooling techniques.

Other design strategies to minimise the impact of the services infrastructure on the space include the adoption of services walls integrated with the acoustic design of the space to accommodate services distribution, with concealed aspirating smoke detection, LED lighting and intelligent controls, plus UV filtration and high-efficiency filters to allow the discharge of kitchen extract air at low level.

Working detail

working detail

working detail

Biba Dow, partner, Dow Jones Architects

Hawksmoor’s crypt floor is brick laid on edge with an inch-thick waterproofing layer of ash and tar on top. In the 20th century, sectional concrete slabs of varying depths were cast over the top. We leveled the concrete to a uniform datum and laid a Delta cavity drain membrane with insulated concrete slab and underfloor heating. The finished floor is 50mm York stone on a sand and cement bedding with lime jointing. This dispenses with the requirement for movement joints, creating a seamless finish.

The new walls are made of European oak in staggered boards. They are organised with horizontal rails that pick up the banding around the stone piers, and these provide a place to locate switches and sockets. The walls were made in panels in the joinery workshop and assembled on site; the joiners templated each vault beforehand. A 25mm gap is left at the top of the timber walls to allow movement and at the sides the 50mm rail is scribed as closely to the masonry as possible. The depth of the timber walls is used as the main servicing route and the wall is constructed effectively as two walls back-to-back with a service void between them. The oak panels are mounted on plasterboard and metal stud walls, which provide fire and acoustic performance. The thickness is revealed in the door linings, which allow a double door system within their depth. The outer doors are solid and provide acoustic separation as well as blackout, and the internal doors are fire-­rated and glazed, bringing daylight into the rooms. The door reveals, which act as acoustic lobbies, are lined in oak tongue-and-groove boards, and the door heads are used to locate signage and fire sounders.

The brick vaults were in varying condition. After removing loose plaster we applied a Telling Unilit lime plaster with fibre reinforcement, which stabilised the remaining plaster. It was finished with clay paint. Stone arches, piers and beams were cleaned with a water pressure system and then poulticed. We carried out some stone repairs but were anxious to retain the rugged quality of the original structure.

Christ Church Spitalfields

Christ Church Spitalfields

Project data

Location London
Client The rector (Andy Rider) and Parochial Church Council of Christ Church
Architect Dow Jones Architects
Start on site August 2014
Completion November 2015
Contract/procurement JCT Standard Form 2011 with quantities
Gross internal floor area 750m²
Construction cost £2,300,000
Construction cost/m² £3,066
Client representative Heather Stanley, HTGT
Services design OR Consult
Structural design Momentum Structural Engineers
Quantity surveyor Pierce Hill
AV design Idium Technology
Lighting design Mindseye Lighting
Catering design Moore Design Catering Consultancy
CDM co-ordinator BBS Site Services
Acoustic design Sandy Brown ICT Tim Vaughan
Access design David Bonnett Associates
Conservation Caroe Architecture
Archaeology Museum of London Archaeology
Building control Assent Building Control
Graphic design Polimekanos
Contractor Coniston Joiner Icklesham
CAD software used Vectorworks
Annual CO2 emissions kg/m²  Monitoring is ongoing


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