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St Stephen Walbrook, The Shock of the Old by Joseph Reilly

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The AJ Writing Prize 2014: Entry

Lodged in the city like a stoic limpet, clinging to the remnants of a receding ancient world. The crumbling stone, weathered copper clad dome, and thrusting steeple define a modest exterior which is more reminiscent of a small, unassuming Mediterranean village church. But I am in London, at least in body if not mind. It is noon on Friday 25th April 2014.

hum of the city diminishes into a distant world as the space I enter explodes into a cacophony of English Baroque splendour. The formality of the rectilinear plan is submerged beneath the central cluster of Corinthian columns, blooming perfectly at their capital to support a soaring dome which rises majestically, bulging to a seemingly impossible size. The space and materials become weightless - the dome floats above the altar, ornamental rosettes adorn its interior, exquisitely crafted by hands which no longer exist. Through clerestory windows, light permeates the building, elucidating the architecture but never overpowering it. All the elements are in perfect harmony. This is Wren’s true masterpiece - the space hewn out of the smoke filled air of a smouldering seventeenth century London and concretised in plain stone and stucco.

I take a seat. The church is silent and still. The architecture no longer moves, the initial shock has mellowed and a tranquillity takes over. A sudden jolt from my left-hand side though and something is happening. The building is about to change. The organ roars like a disgruntled Beelzebub rising up through the bowels of hell and into the jet black pipes of the huge instrument. The building shakes as the sound ricochets off every detail before passing through my body and eventually deliquescing into the boundless dome, the next note poised to do the same. I have entered the frenzied realm of a Dionysian dithyramb1, free from the perils of reality (for an hour at least). As I sit, transfixed by the sound and the vessel which contains it, the city outside has never seemed so disenchanted.

The new London festers under the putrefying blanket of Modernism’s stagnant afterbirth - cold steel and glass dominates, brash flashes of capitalism, wicked mutations of greed. In places the architecture rises out of the mire, but too often it does so sombrely, quietly whispering to no one: “Building’s should be seen and not heard”. Yet inside everything is different. I am dislocated from the new city and lost in the old. The sound roles on as mellifluous melodies caress the void once more - each note reverberates with a different surface of the building transforming it into the most complex and cavernous of instruments. The architecture has become charged by an invisible element of the world which surrounds it - the immaterial is as crucial as the material.2

The sound soars into one last crescendo, one last push towards ecstasy! The whole building is stretched taut - poised to burst - by the indefatigable aural onslaught. I am gloriously trapped between stone and sound, suspended in the vastness of something beyond the ordinary. But then it falls apart, and the notes role back calmly into the pipes and die a noble death. Yet the moment is not lost; the space is now silent but a different music emerges, richer than ever and infinitely rapturous - “Much have I travelled in the realms of gold”3! I leave the building through the same door I entered, down the same well trodden steps, but somehow, something has changed.

1. Semper, G., Style in the Technical and Tectonic Arts
2. Hill, J., Immaterial Architecture
3. Keats, J., On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer

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