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In memoriam

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Malcolm Barnett reports on a striking piece of modern ecclesiastical architecture

The Falklands Islands Memorial Chapel, opened by the Queen in March 2000, was built to commemorate those British service personnel who lost their lives in the Falklands War of 1982. Standing dramatically in the grounds of Pangbourne College, whose nautical traditions make this a fitting location for such a memorial, the chapel also serves as the school's 550-seat assembly hall.

Crispin Wride won the project from 75 entries in a national competition run for the trustees by the Royal Fine Art Commission and the Royal Institute of British Architects. The striking form of the building, which is full of symbolism, stems from the plan which is based on the classical 'mandorla' - an Italian word meaning almond - a shape used in traditional religious paintings to signify divinity, deity or godliness. The two curved masonry walls that enclose the space allude to cupped hands either raised in prayer or offering protection to those who mourn. They also give rise to an uncannily appropriate ship-like character.

In more practical terms, the curved walls help to reduce the external scale of what could have been a rather overbearing and bulky mass.

Internally, the intimacy of the space is helped by locating the seating on two levels: 250 seats in the main assembly hall and 300 above on a Ushaped gallery oriented towards the dais. Tucked neatly beneath the gallery are a Lady Chapel, vestry and two memorial exhibition rooms which contain a computer-based commemoration of the Falklands conflict and of the people involved.

Natural ventilation

The building is naturally ventilated through subterranean ducts served by louvred intakes, which are expressed as bold architectural features located around the perimeter of the chapel. These ducts terminate internally in perimeter floor grilles beneath which run heating pipes.

The internal environment is controlled by a series of dampers set into the ducts and by opening lights in the roof glazing to encourage the natural stack effect.

Structure and brickwork

The 495mm-thick curved brick walls, approximately 10m high and 40m long, were set out using metal templates. They are constructed from a half-brick-thick outer leaf, a 100mm cavity containing 50mm of thermal insulation, and a 280mm collar-jointed wall of two leaves of 140mm thick concrete block. Bricks are standard red-multi wirecuts, laid in stretcher bond, with the sharp angular return ends being formed using moulded special shaped bricks for the acute angles and cut-and-stick specials for the obtuse angles.

Mortar joints are generally a bucket-handle profile, but recessed joints are provided at 450mm spacing between the two lower bands of stone and at 1350mm spacing above this level.

These joints are designed to line through with window transoms and are followed through in the horizontal joints of the natural-coloured cement-render internal finish to these walls.

Although some thought was given to constructing these walls as diaphragm walls, ultimately this was found to be unnecessary.

Lateral stability of these high, effectively freestanding, walls is provided by a combination of the stability inherent in their curved form and by using the roof structure to distribute the lateral loads between the two walls.

The roof, supported independently on slender steel columns, is separated from the external walls by a glazed slot which allows daylight to enter the space around the perimeter, giving the impression that the roof is floating, a symbolism that is reinforced by the inverted truss profile of the roof construction which gives the ceiling the appearance of the underside of a boat hull.

Formal relationship

Externally the building is sited in a formal relationship with the college parade ground, but is recessed back into the woodland that borders the space. Other site constraints led to a decision to set the building on a north-south rather than a more traditional east-west axis. This was thought to be acceptable in what is a nondenominational chapel.

To the west, a sweeping lawn, mounded to follow the curve of the wall, has been planted with South Atlantic beech trees. To the east, radiating bands of granite are set into large areas of compacted gravel leading to an informal seating area formed from rocks of a type found in the Falklands. Newly planted Gleditsia trees provide shade and an added sense of woodland enclosure.

An old circular water tank in the south-east corner has been transformed into a simple sunken memorial garden. Curved brick walls, 215mm thick, with stone seating, form a tranquil brick-paved enclosure. The focal point within the space is a cascade of water, falling in front of a black granite panel carved with a map of the Falkland Islands, and discharging into a small pool with large sea pebbles beneath. This entire structure is set within a landscaped mound planted with grasses from the South Atlantic on the southern side and yew and Gleditsia trees to the north.

This altogether quite beautiful piece of modern ecclesiastical architecture, using traditional materials and eclectic symbolism, is set most successfully on a sensitive rural site with panoramic views over the Thames Valley.

Given the difficulties architects seem to have with planning authorities, it is refreshing to hear Crispin Wride report that not only were there no such difficulties in this case, but also that the local authority described the scheme at the time as the best planning application it had ever received.

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