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Crafting stories by Julia Phillips

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The AJ Writing Prize 2014: Entry

We arrive in Cuddesdon just as the downpour begins. The sky turns murky grey and the smell of wet grass floats on the air. The low, stone-walled lobby provides a welcome source of shelter, and when we enter the chapel beyond we are astonished by the sudden height and brightness we encounter. Tales shine in through the high clerestory and weave themselves into the timber lattice above, folklore ripples around the clearing of slender columns and sweet-smelling stories seep out of the pale ash furniture. The crafting of architecture is the crafting of stories, and the Bishop Edward King Chapel is a building conceived of narrative.

Walking around the ambulatory in the gap between the plastered wall and the internal timber structure, I feel protected from the rain, as though inside a porcellaneous shell. I tread slowly around the series of slender larch Glulam columns, admiring how they converge overhead like an upturned boat’s hull, and am struck by the contradiction between this structure and the heavy elliptical enclosing wall. Simultaneously rooted and lifted, I am at home and abroad, settled and wandering. Light is woven and twined about the seemingly continuous lattice formed by the timber structure, before draping down into the space below, like an exquisite curtain. Stepping inside the ring of timber columns, I am transported to the tranquillity of a boat at sea, or a dappled forest clearing, and invited to start on a voyage, an adventure like the ones in my favourite childhood tales. The stillness is not oppressive, even on this gloomy day. It seems instead to come from within me, a human response to the calmness of the materials - larch, ash, polished concrete, lime plaster - and their sober, elegant hues. I am a wayfarer lost on the ocean, or a nomad wandering in the woods, completely at home, for although I am off the trail, the unknown is familiar to me.

The building sounds like a chapel; the plastered blockwork wall coils around a reverential aura of stillness. My companion and I are silent, absorbing the serenity around us. Gradually, we dare to speak, at first in hushed whispers, and finally at a normal volume, our boldness rewarded with a wonderful clarity of tone. I move to sit by the off-axis oriel window, the depth of its reveals keeping the vibrant greens of the Oxfordshire countryside at arm’s length. Only the shimmer of the rain betrays that this is not just a painting of an idyllic landscape. Sitting for a while, I realise that the stillness in the chapel is not pure. It is not the stillness of a picture, but of an animate being that merely lies dormant. As the sunlight changes the whole room responds, as if breathing faintly. When the rain stops and the sun comes out every feature of the space sharpens and crispens. We lift our gaze to the wonderful play of light in the framework overhead.

Back in the hermetic environment of my room in Oxford I read the poem by Seamus Heaney that inspired the architect, Níall McLaughlin, as well as the design team’s own description of the chapel and their intentions for it. I look at photographs, yet I cannot relive what it was like to be there, I know it only as a memory. It is a space built to be experienced by all the senses simultaneously and completely.

Nestled humbly in the landscape, the chapel seemed oblivious to its level of celebrity and numerous accolades. I was all too aware, arriving with high expectations of this “ship of souls”. Perhaps this is a danger of fame; knowing the story behind a building before you inhabit it alters your personal narrative, mixing it with that of the architect. In this case, the architect has provided clear plotlines in abundance, through architectural motifs implying boats, woodland, weaving and excavating. The simplicity with which they are presented however, coupled with the contemplative nature of the space, allows a richness of thought and imagination, with plenty of room for personal adaptations.

In the Heaney poem, a crewman struggles to release the anchor of his ethereal ship, caught in the midst of a group of monks at prayer. “This man can’t bear our life here and will drown,” warns the abbot. I wonder at the world the man has climbed into. A world where anything is replicable, where textiles, ice cream and even replacement body parts can roll off a 3D printer. Material sensitivity and tectonic quality struggle against commercial logic and consumer attitudes. I wonder if the man is a craftsman who could not survive in an age post industrialisation, mechanisation and digitisation, where craft has become devalued, and the gap between artists and their artisanal cousins grows ever wider. The Bishop Edward King Chapel is his ship, his refuge where manual talent is still venerated. Although the materials in the chapel are unashamedly honest about their industrial origins, I see in the gothic rib-vaulting of the internal framework the stonemasons and carpenters of old. Brought back into the present by the simple, minimalist overall aesthetic of the building, I realise that craft today is not so much about handiwork as a commitment to realising artistic values. Craft is, in this space, a celebration of the thoughtful, careful collaboration of intellectual and bodily skill.

The human values evident in the chapel, its integrity and responsiveness, bring the narratives we provide as inhabitants to life. Its sublime spatial qualities justify a belief in the higher power of craft. McLaughlin has earned the title of poet, in the Platonic sense that “productions of all arts are kinds of poetry, and their craftsmen are all poets.” It is now up to us to interpret the craft and poetry of his chapel, in order to inspire and enrich our own stories.

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