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Thomas Ford & Partners is a 25-strong architectural practice based in London. Established in 1926, projects include extensions to Chelmsford Museum and West Malling Abbey, reception facilities for the National Trust at Polesden Lacey, Surrey, works for London South Bank University, and the repair of historic churches, including St Mary's Ealing (AJ 11.09.03).

'From Bermondsey to Wandsworth, so many churches are/Some with apsidal chancels, some Perpendicular, ' enthused John Betjeman more than half a century ago. Though the post-war period has seen too many churches closed, some converted (generally uninspiringly) to new uses and others demolished, south London remains a fertile hunting ground for lovers of Victorian ecclesiastical architecture.

All Saints in Rosendale Road, West Dulwich, remains a fortress of the faith among the suburban villas, but this majestic - if incomplete - example of late Victorian church design came close to being erased from the skyline. On the night of 8 June 2000, a fire caused by an electrical fault gutted the entire building. Everything inside was destroyed, leaving only a rooess shell.

Prior to the fire, Thomas Ford & Partners - the practice responsible for the £6.9 million reconstruction project at All Saints completed late last year - had been contracted to work on plans for a new west end. This meant, fortunately, that it was on hand to dissuade the fire service from demolishing substantial sections of masonry. As Paul Sharrock of Thomas Ford recalls, though the stability of the building was initially in doubt, most of the structure turned out to be sound. The building still bears the scars of the blaze, and these have become part of its history.

All Saints boasts one of the grandest apsidal chancels in London. From the east, where the ground falls away sharply, the church has something of the character of a minor French cathedral, albeit realised mostly in red brick. It was built in 188891 to designs by George Fellowes Prynne, on land provided by Dulwich College. Fellowes Prynne (1853-1927), the son of a Plymouth parson, had tried his hand at farming in the American West before returning to England and securing a place in the office of G E Street, one of the leading church architects of the day.

He established his own practice in 1880 and, according to one of his obituaries, 'ecclesiastical work occupied the greater part of his time'. Though inuenced by Street, Fellowes Prynne developed a distinctive style of his own, drawing on 13th-century French and English exemplars. At West Dulwich, he planned a church of cathedralesque proportions, seating 1,400 worshippers, with a seven-bay nave, transepts and lofty chancel; the whole set on a vast undercroft which, because of the fall of the site from west to east, was largely day-lit.

Money ran out when only the east end and half the nave were complete. No funds remained for the elaborate -ttings that Fellowes Prynne envisaged, apart from the elaborate stone chancel screen - a distinctive feature of his work - which was installed. The west end remained un-nished, a lean-to narthex and mean porch forming an incongruous preface to the splendour beyond.

Sharrock and project architect Simon McCormack faced a task similar to that confronted by many architects charged with rebuilding bomb-damaged churches in the years after the Second World War. Should the aim be to recreate a version of what had been lost, or, while respecting the integrity of what survived, to produce an interior contemporary in visual and liturgical style?

In 1950s Britain, the former imperative was generally dominant, while in Germany, for example, a more innovative approach prevailed. It was this philosophy that drove the All Saints project. Since the church was Grade-I listed, English Heritage had a consultative role and supported the architects' proposals, which were backed by a conservation plan. While the insurers, engineers, and architects discussed the mechanics of the reconstruction, the parish considered what it needed from its building. Some conclusions were surprisingly radical.

Fellowes Prynne's magnificent chancel screen had survived the fire but its calcined stonework was extremely fragile and had to be demolished, so removing the barrier that had separated the chancel and high altar from the congregation - a portable nave altar had actually been in use for some years. A decision was made to locate the new altar - the only one in the rebuilt church - at the western end of the chancel, which is otherwise left free of furnishings to allow maximum exibility for the liturgy. The choir, which had previously sung from stalls in the chancel, was relocated at the west end of the building in a new gallery, where it is planned, once funds are raised, to install a new pipe organ.

Simple but sturdy wooden chairs provide seating for the congregation and can be rearranged as the occasion demands.

Floor levels have been simplified. The overall effect of the rebuilt interior is undeniably austere and there is scope for commissioning works of art that would animate the space and relieve its somewhat Calvinist purity.

The ferocity of the fire caused extensive damage to internal masonry. In the body of the church, brickwork and Bathstone dressings have been left much as found, with badly damaged surfaces cut back and minimum reinstatement. The chancel, in contrast, was carefully restored, with new stone shafts from which a timber vault of distinctly Gothic character springs.

The remainder of the building is covered by a simple steel roof structure, externally clad in lead rather than the slate used by Fellowes Prynne, with the steel trusses clearly exposed internally.

The American white oak that lines the ceiling, which follows the line of the original timber vault, is also used extensively as a ooring material, combined with German limestone.

A new access and lighting gantry, fabricated of steel with timber oor, forms a gallery level between the nave arcades on the north and south, lit by clerestory windows. This is a forceful and unapologetic insertion. In functional terms, it provides easy access to the lighting - a sophisticated system providing a range of settings. Visually, it has the effect of reducing the apparent scale of the internal space, and giving it a somewhat theatrical quality - not inappropriately, since liturgy is closely akin to drama.

Fellowes Prynne's extensive undercroft served as an on-site church hall, but the utility of this valuable asset was restricted by its limited access. The space was entered through a narrow subterranean passage, after descending a steep spiral stair located in the north-east corner of the building, with access from the street.

The integration of the undercroft with the worship space above, making it both accessible and inviting to the wider local community, was an important part of the client brief.

Thomas Ford & Partners had been working on designs for a new west end for the church, including a new point of entry to the undercroft, before the fire transformed the scenario. Fellowes Prynne's original designs would have taken the church right up to the edge of the street, making it a dominant presence. What has now been built has the role, in the architect's view, of mediating between the scale of the modest semis across the road and the great bulk of Fellowes Prynne's building.

This new west end is defiantly unhistoricist, a bold composition in stone and brick: the brickwork, in loadbearing English bond, matching the gauge of the original masonry; the curved entrance screen constructed of concrete faced in Bath stone.

In place of the lean-to roof that covered the previous 'temporary' west end, the new nave roof has been extended westwards to terminate in a dramatic gable that has echoes of Inskip + Jenkins' memorable new church of St Paul, Haringey, of the 1990s.

The new narthex area contains a parish office on the ground oor with an office for the parish priest and practice room for the choir upstairs. At crypt level, it incorporates a new social space with kitchen linked to a large central hall enclosed by glazed screens. Spaces at the east and south sides of the undercroft are let to a nursery school, providing income for the parish as well as a valuable amenity for parents in the area. All levels are linked practically, by stairs and a lift, and visually: an 18m-high void provides a striking connection, allowing daylight to penetrate the new undercroft space.

English Heritage and other relevant bodies (the Southwark Diocesan Advisory Committee, for example) endorsed the boldness of the design. Short of actually completing the Fellowes Prynne scheme - not viable a century ago, let alone now - a contemporary approach was inevitable. The interior of the new west end is a success on virtually every level, not least for the way in which new and old work are interlocked yet clearly demarcated. The entrance screen has too many memories of 1980s Post-Modernism, but it is a courageous civic gesture, 'embracing the street' in the way its designers envisaged.

In the immediate aftermath of the 2000 fire there were fears that All Saints would suffer the same fate as the nearby Victorian church of St Barnabas - burned beyond repair in 1992.

But All Saints has been retrieved from ruin by a project that fuses - sensitively but without timidity - repair and new design. The fire must have seemed for a time the tragic end to a great Victorian venture, but it has proved, by all reports, the beginning of a new and expansive chapter in the history of the parish.


SUBSTRUCTURE Foundations/slabs £59/m 2Contiguous bored cast-in-place piles to extension; minimal underpinning work to existing ground-bearing slab

SUPERSTRUCTURE Frame £24/m 2Steel frame within existing building, including trusses and girders Upper floors £74/m 2Reinforced in-situ concrete slabs with attached beams/ upstands; prefabricated mild-steel gantries at high level Roof £235/m 2Lead sheet roof to main roofs, slate roofing to ancillary roofs including timber structure; aluminium and lead rainwater goods Rooflights £38/m 2Staircases £23/m 2Includes circular steel staircase with timber open treads External walls £559/m 2Brick and stone repairs/replacement; new ashlar stone and facing brickwork to extension Windows £49/m 2Purpose-made aluminium windows; repairs to lead windows External doors £41/m 2Aluminium and hardwood external doors, including all ironmongery Internal walls and partitions £121/m 2Predominantly facing brick walls in exposed areas, blockwork and minimal metal studwork; proprietary toilet cubicles Internal doors £42/m 2Pre-hung timber door sets, veneered face with lacquer finish; ironmongery; some aluminium doors

INTERNAL FINISHES Wall finishes £25/m 2Plaster finish in two-coat work to ancillary areas; lightweight plaster in two coats to plasterboard base; decorating; wall tiling to splashbacks in WC areas Floor finishes £97/m 2Oak and natural stone flooring to main areas (nave and aisles); tiling and vinyl-sheet flooring to ancillary areas (WCs and wet areas) Ceiling finishes £68/m 2Structural aluminium ribs and timber ceilings to main areas; suspended ceilings and plastered concrete soffits; emulsion paint finish

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