The AJ Writing Prize 2014: Entry
Slowly, reaching out from his armchair with a peaceful kind of joy in his voice he said, “Tom, once in your life you get a chance to build your building, this building is my expression, I feel this.” He presses his fist against his chest and settles back again.
Whilst materials make architecture and space, it is stories that bring places to life. It is as if the impact of a building can only be drawn out through personal narratives; we describe our inspirational meetings with buildings through anecdote. But it takes time for these wonders to percolate into a form where they can be expressed. It is nine years since I first saw the Church of St Anne at Fawley Court, three years since I met its octogenarian architect; everyday the task of writing about it increases in urgency.
The Church is situated in the grounds of Fawley Court, which, until recently, served as a retreat centre. We practiced with a view onto slender pines and open grassland where horses shelter from the sun. The prosaic ex-armybarracks-turned-school was our home and sat indelicately next to the classical Fawley Court (a disputed Christopher Wren). In our breaks we sipped tea, sat on the grass in a sheltered courtyard or wandered in the leafy grounds. One of these days took a pair of us down a track towards the Thames, past the Church. The track widens into a clearing, with pine trees stepping ever closer to a building whose copper clad roof, patinated to a dappled green in the dancing shadows and sunlight of the trees, piercing out of the ground, fighting its way skyward. Cut at a low diagonal across this is a Narthex, the darkness of the shade beneath it exaggerated by the deep timber beam and the brick paviors, all left out to catch a tint of the green in moss and staining. As you walk past the building you see a slither of clerestory glazing separating the two joining roof forms, you feel the lines of the seams in the copper fall fast towards the ground, only to be held just above it by a low brick plinth. It becomes apparent that this building forms the closing face of the clearing, and that its far side is an outdoor pulpit facing on to a vast green lawn that runs axially from Fawley Court itself.
Following the Church’s perimeter it nestles back into the woods, with lower bushes pushing close to its flanks, held back by careful caretaking, and perhaps the perambulations of similarly enraptured feet. Working back to the entrance clearing you brush against this weathered brick until the woods open up in the direction you came from, and the building stands behind you, as if it was the protecting wall at the back of a cave.
We were lucky. A monk opens the door to leave but upon seeing us he hesitates and invites us in. Suddenly all is cool, stillness and silence. This low Narthex space opens between two large laminated timbers angling up to the ridgeline of a tall but close space. The outward appearance of complex geometry is revealed as subtle and introverted, a plan that wraps around the altar. We sit, separately, and in silence, for some time.
The potential for narrative to reveal this building’s inspirational qualities emerged during my time as a student: its obscurity, with no obvious published record, meant it became relevant not as details, but as a holistic feeling for place. As this education progressed, our ability to express our own personalities in our designs improving, the itch to discover more about the Church grew. Unfortunately during my studies the house, grounds and chapel were purchased from the Monks who had run it for 50 years, rendering it inaccessible. The Church did, however, before its deconsecration, become listed, and so the name of the architect, a Wladislav Tadeusz Jeorge Jarosv had been published. Unfortunately I was foiled again as no record other than a disused phone number of a firm in southwest London existed. A friend, inspired by the layers of intrigue, connected him to the Polish Underground Research Group in London. Within moments of my call nervous whispers summoned Wladislav, or George, to a phone. Conversation lead to a meeting in his home, designed for his late wife after she was bound to a wheelchair.
George was a survivor of Warsaw and the concentration camps of World War II. He had walked across Europe, once to find an army he could join to help finish the war, and then to find his partner, who later became his wife as he finished his architectural studies at the Bartlett. He described a career of enjoying building, before we returned again to the reason for our meeting. He said, softly, leaning back into his chair, his eye resting on some point in the distant past, “It was opened with an evensong, Prince Wladislav was there, as was I, and my wife. At one point in the service the congregation stood and the lights were dimmed, a candle processed to the front of the Chapel for the prayer, we stood with bowed heads. I turned to watch the congregation, to see them in my building, and the Prince was stood, looking up into the roof, and he was crying. I will never forget that moment.” Nor will I.
As ruin approaches this building, its dilapidation assured by its current owners, these memories and stories start to create a different kind of architecture - it is not one of bricks and mortar, but one of intangible qualities, of inspiration and hope. As they become mythical these architectures take on a dream-like potency. Stripped of the detail that could tell us of quantities of discreet elements they instead grow as an urgent feeling for place, something that, though it can never quite be codified, can be brought to light through the telling of stories.