The AJ Writing Prize 2014: Entry
Within the dense, tightly-packed walls and alleys at the old centre of a modern city is a building with a large room deep within its plan, away from any street frontage. This room is tall, over five metres from floor to ceiling, with an oak table at its centre. The table has a single wide upright member at each end, deeply moulded with vertical square grooves. Under a single spotlight within a big bronze dish-light suspended on a single pole, in the centre of the table-top, is a vase of fresh flowers. Several dozen chairs, of fine oak construction and matching the table, are arranged in rows in arcs around the table. There are people sitting in many of the chairs and the room is in silence. Nothing, apparently, is happening.
As time passes, the room remains more or less in silence: someone coughs, shuffles in their seat. The sun comes out from behind a cloud and throws bright light across the room, which makes the timber panelling glow and the expanses of plain painted plaster above appear to soften and dissolve. The mouldings on the end of the table reveal their depth as the shadow of the table-top rakes down across them. The sunlight persists and as the minute-hand of the (silent) clock moves around, so does the streak of sunlight across the room and the attendant shadows. The play of the sun through openings in an inhabited box is such an old piece of architectural theatre, yet it never loses its drama. The silence remains unbroken until, at a certain point, two people shake hands, and a low rumble of voices becomes audible as the remainder of the occupants of the room also get up to shake hands with each other, and eventually the room empties as people go home, or take refreshments elsewhere. The room returns to silence, although this is by now unattended.
The room itself is fifteen metres long by nine metres wide at its widest. The main volume is a rectangular in plan with a glazed double door in a kind of open wooden lobby at one end and a tall window onto a courtyard with a bamboo growing in it, at the other. There is high-level glazing along a central portion of both sides, below which there are recesses under deep overhanging sills to the windows above. The recess on the one side is much deeper, and that on the other has two more glazed double doors onto a long corridor. Hardwood panelling, up to 1.2 metres above the floor, runs right around the room, and consists of plain transom-and-mullion framing with flush panels (with a small mitred frame, also flush) and a small square negative detail between the two. This forms the backs to built-in bench seats and butts up to the architraves, which along with the doors, are all in the same oak finish.
This is the Meeting Room of the Westminster Quakers, rebuilt in the 1950s after bomb damage, and the seated people were attending Meeting for Worship. Their practice of gathering in silence “to wait on God” is, to a casual observer, a highly abstracted undertaking. To conceive of space specifically in the pursuit of silence, not as an end in itself but a kind of conduit, presents a singular architectural challenge. Quakers talk about finding stillness in the silence of the Meeting, in which the absence (of noise, speech, or directed activity) leads to sense of presence or awareness of themselves, and of their conscience, joy, sorrow and togetherness- the divine, they say, is within us all, and can be experienced directly with no intercession by anyone else, if you look for it. People frequently do stand up and speak, in fact, but each such episode is framed by periods of silence, and if nobody stands and speaks, which is not uncommon, then the whole gathering, from start to finish, is bathed in this silence. The space itself, therefore, needs very little physical facility beyond maybe somewhere to sit, and to be reasonably free from sources of sensory over-stimulation. The room has no pattern or formula except perhaps the arrangement of the chairs which makes it clear that all are as equal within the space as can be, and that no-one is in charge.
How simple is too simple? How ‘minimalistic’ can details of basic joinery be, before they become too contrived? Striving for simplicity and plainness risks becoming clinical, or just mean, and the space will become hard and entirely unforgiving, as might the silence held within it. The oak half-panelling, although modern in its flush detailing, follows a vernacular pattern whereby we unconsciously know how the parts fit together and in what order. The rich hue of the timber brings visual warmth to the plain walls, the deep sills to the clerestory windows break up the height of the room, making it generous and not vertiginous or awe-inspiring. There is a strong and simple composition to the room, in which there are broad symmetries and two clear axes, with the polished herringbone-patterned timber block floor running from end to end.
The room is easy to read. In its planning, it accommodates all sorts of activities beyond the regular meetings of the Quakers for which it was constructed, having a clear intention but a loose fit. It becomes a life-drawing classroom or an opera rehearsal room to earn its keep. The execution likewise demonstrates materials, details and workmanship that are robust and institutional, but which are also comfortable and capable of generating delight. For the finer details, woven into the tectonics of floor and wall, of window and ceiling, it simply offers the richness and colour of the lives of the people who gather there in silence, completing the picture of a much-loved room, which is plain but never ordinary.