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St Bride’s Church by Lewis Denson

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The AJ Writing Prize 2014: Entry

St. Bride’s Church in East Kilbride is a sheer mass, a breathing brick beast jutting out of the suburban new town of East Kilbride, South Lanarkshire. East Kilbride was Scotland’s first new town, one of many towns built nationwide to accommodate housing shortages after the Second World War. St. Bride’s Church, designed by acclaimed Scottish modernists Gillespie, Kidd & Coia, accompanied the expansion, with a Roman Catholic place of worship that aimed to reflect the changing tides of modernism.

The building itself is a polished box, a hefty bulk with fine detailing and exquisite articulation. The exterior expresses a grand scale next to the semi-detached quaintness of the post-war housing stock surrounding. The topography adds to its elevation above the domesticity, though the exterior wrapping of brick in the rich red hue lends a feeling of scale and familiarity. The Janus-faced block expresses several levels of detail on varying measures. The edges are sharp, clean and modern, but the ornamentation in the brick courses conveys another feeling entirely. Far from the smoothness of a Corbusian concrete block, this striated brick cliff has subtle beauty achieved from the manipulation of the regular unit of the brick. Each façade is another experiment. The bold brick detailing of the modulated rainwater drainpipes cuts up through the wall, exposing the chunky mass of the brick creature and hinting at the industrial roof structure behind. Holes are punched seemingly needlessly, and the cascading decoration facing the main road evokes a pixelated screen. The clever tricks create four windowless walls, never revealing the secret of what is contained inside. The only clue on how to explore this form is the dramatic curling route of the brick wall on the western facade, looping back on itself to disguise the entrance.

The human scaled-steps brush the former site of the 90ft campanile, a structure that dwarfed the church and the town further still, but now exists only in the imagination. The rest that exists today enjoys the safety of its category A listed status. The steps lead to a square, enclosed on three sides with the ancillary buildings mimicking the style of the church at ground level.

Ground surface brick patterns radiate away from the entrance, and the route leads closer to the undulating weathered brick surface. The smooth curve of the wall when viewed from afar becomes a thousand different hues and surfaces when experienced up close. Each brick is unique; its form, texture and colour a product of infinite combinations of processes. The clay is dug from the earth. It is shaped and fired. Each result is unpredictable, and its exposure to weather systems warps the molecules of each brick further still. The brick is a symbol of craft and progress. The shaping of earth in the dimension of a human hand. The curve of the wall follows its path from the bright sky to the shadows inside.

Through bulky wooden doors follows the ceremonial route of the congregation through to the main worship space. The enigma of the exterior is finally exposed in the form of an atmospheric, powerfully light and spacious hall. Approached from the back, the Alter is centred at the front, with the pews seating 400 lined up to the back of the long room. The light feels impossible when juxtaposed with the windowless exterior. It permeates from every crevice, spilling into the massive void. Holes ripped out of the wall surface cascade into the room, with a cantilevered balcony extruding out. The long wall of light wells baffles in its technical prowess, the walls are deep and thick whilst simultaneously looking light and hollow. Exploration leads to a stairway carved into the wall fabric that winds up to a balcony to expose a theatrical panoramic view. The soaring room creates an atmosphere unfamiliar to the humble bricks and mortar it is constructed from. Material made temple, temple of material.

The space feels industrial. The rough, worn texture of the brick contrasts with the decorative church trinkets. Pipework is exposed and lighting cables hang loose. It is a raw expression of material and construction. The brick is fittingly load bearing, its mass supports the industrial scissor-tooth roof, hidden from the outside by the extended parapet wall. The drainpipes stand proudly, stuck to the surface of the wall, exclaiming their utility.

St. Bride’s Church is a wonderful example of Scottish Modern Architecture. It has a flair and character typical of Gillespie, Kidd & Coia’s eccentricity that interpreted but never merely copied the modernist style. Their inspirational collaborative studio style led to buildings with soul. Their efforts to create community buildings in post-war developments created much needed facilities for people to come together and be. Their designs cut away the harsh dehumanisation of many contemporary developments by rehashing the modernist principles, to include much needed delight and pleasure.

St. Bride’s is a treasure chest. Secretive but welcoming, alien and familiar, grand and domestic. Firmly rooted in its historic, physical and social foundations, it is emblematic of the spirit, ambition and generosity of post-war planning. A utilitarian luxury for the everyday.

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