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Tuesday29 July 2014

Eric Parry’s St Martin-in-the-Fields makeover

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Eric Parry Architects’ refurbishment and reconfiguration of Trafalgar Square’s St Martin-in-the-Fields church demonstrates an impressive singularity of vision.

Against the backdrop of declining church attendances, James Gibbs’ magisterial St Martin-in-the-Fields is remarkable not least for the fact that every day of the week it is absolutely heaving with life. This is in part a product of its extraordinary situation — holding the north-east corner of Trafalgar Square, it effectively marks the locus of London life, serving both a tightly packed local congregation and an endless stream of tourists. It is also a tribute to the commitment that the church has long shown to the task of engaging as wide a spread of this community as possible.

The adjacent Charing Cross station was the principal point of arrival for soldiers returning from the front during the first world war, prompting the then vicar, the Reverend Dick Shepherd, to establish a care facility for them at the church. After the war, this service developed into a centre tasked with answering the needs of London’s homeless population. It was housed in a former school, part of a Nash-designed terrace of parish buildings which address the church’s north facade across a 16m-wide precinct, and also in the underground vaults Nash constructed beneath this public space. More recently, a Chinese community centre and a café have been established in the church’s crypt, and a programme of well attended concert recitals has been staged in the church itself.

There was also until very recently a market that occupied much of the north precinct and extended onto the ground at the church’s east end. Among this vibrant range of activities, however, the market’s presence had increasingly come to be viewed as a mixed blessing. A tatty affair catering nominally to the tourist trade, it offered the church a pretty insubstantial ground rent while harbouring a thriving drug-

dealing operation. In urban design terms, its presence was also problematic. Circumscribed by a cast-iron railing, it restricted public access across the site to a narrow path running along the side of the Nash terrace. The vaults beneath this area were equally troublesome: perennially leaky, with ceiling heights too low to comfortably run services. A warren of unmonitorable spaces, they offered a far from ideal environment in which to operate a night shelter.

After years of making-do, the advent of lottery funding finally prompted the church to set about addressing these issues. In 2001, it launched a competition to find a scheme that would encompass the refurbishment of the Nash and Gibbs buildings and the radical transformation of the above and below ground spaces between them.

Long section

It was won by Eric Parry Architects, and it has subsequently taken seven years of fundraising, redesign in response to heritage lobby concerns, archaeological discoveries and marathon contract delays — but the scheme finally opened last month.

This isn’t of course the first time that St Martin-in-the-Fields’ context has been radically reconfigured. When it was built between 1722-26, it addressed the lower reach of St Martin’s Lane. Its current spectacular setting was created only when Nash swept away a large area of urban fabric to the west in the 1820s — a space which Barry later formalised as Trafalgar Square. Foster & Partners’ transformation of the square in 2003 introduced a much expanded pedestrian area in front of the church, a legacy that the Parry scheme builds on directly.

Its character is bound up with a very modernist preoccupation with the interplay of transparency and reflectivity

 

The market has been sent packing and the railings that closed it off from the pedestrian route running alongside the Nash terrace have gone too. The whole north precinct — its proportions place it somewhere between a street and a square — has therefore been transformed into an uncluttered public space stretching between St Martin’s Lane in the west and Adelaide Street to the east. It is punctuated by two figures aligned with the space’s principal axis but 30m apart. One is a pavilion addressing St Martin’s Lane that provides lift and stair access to the new suite of spaces Parry has created in place of the Nash vaults. The other is a glazed, sunken courtyard, which provides light to this subterranean world.

The relationship between them is enforced by their common profile, which takes the form of two circles intersecting in the manner of a Venn diagram. The competition-winning scheme offered the same general arrangement but these elements were then conceived as cubic cages, formed of granite posts and beams, interposed with glass. The switch came at the client’s instigation. It at first pushed for a circular form but Parry argued that the shape’s sacred connotations sat unhappily with the largely secular nature of the spaces housed in the new development. The adopted solution is an ingenious compromise which reinforces the axiality of the encompassing public space.

In the case of the pavilion, one circle describes an entrance area while the other is occupied by a Jacobsenesque steel and granite spiral stair which wraps around a lift. The enclosing fabric went through many design iterations, and for some time Parry was set on constructing it in stacked glass. This strategy was abandoned when it became clear that it was impossible to polish the glass’s curved leading edges, but the final scheme retains something of the crystalline quality promised by that idea. Rising from a granite base, a 4.5m-high expanse of glass is capped by a shallow dome, fabricated in stainless steel and punctured by an oculus that reiterates the pavilion’s plan in miniature. The building’s symmetry, its tripartite structure and a good deal of its detailing carry strong classical associations —indeed in the curvaceous geometry of the dome’s plastered soffit, one detects intimations of the baroque of Gibbs’s era. However, its character is also bound up with a very modernist preoccupation with the interplay of transparency and reflectivity. There are two quite independent layers of glass. The outer is a triple-laminated assembly which, amazingly, bears the 10 tonne weight of the dome. The inner is set 250mm back and is fitted with a reflective interlayer. This layer does not continue unbroken around the pavilion’s full circumference. Rather, it incorporates a series of stainless steel-framed gaps which register as ghosted niches within the fictive depth of the wall.

If we take the stair down, we arrive in a lobby from where we can see down the entirety of the 60m-long space Parry has carved out. Rough-plastered white walls and a sophisticated use of internal glazing ensure a high level of light distribution throughout. The ambience offers a pointed contrast to that of the windowless, exposed brick crypt which lies alongside and which corresponds to the lobby’s floor level. This space retains its use as a café but the new development has transformed its disabled access provision and also enabled the relocation of the shop, kitchens and a small chapel devoted to Dick Shepherd which had previously clogged up its plan.

At the heart of the new development lies a large shoebox-shaped hall, a space that can serve parish functions or be rented out. This volume is detached from the external walls and is further distinguished by being faced in oak, inside and out, smoked to a colour close to that of the furniture and wainscoting of the church. Its floor lies a storey below that of the lobby, but a deep strip of clerestory glazing allows us to look into it from above.

The lower lobby with sunken courtyard to left.

Credit: Tim Soar

Taking the stair that tracks down between the crypt and the hall, we arrive at what is effectively a second lobby. It is configured around the sunken courtyard, a space that has been earmarked as the site of a future art commission. Even in its current naked form — its floor is faced simply in granite setts — it asserts a tremendous presence. Beyond its sheer walls of glass, slim stainless steel-faced columns support a massive crown of granite. This curvaceously modelled element rises above ground to provide a protective barrier, set just below the eye height of passers-by. Vertical slices in this wall enable a degree of visual communication but the space below still feels like a refuge from the flux of urban life. What we do see as we journey round the courtyard is first the foliage of the trees that line Adelaide Street and then — and this is a truly spectacular sight — the church’s steeple, rocketing into the London sky.

The Dick Shepherd Chapel has been relocated to the far end of the lower lobby, from which it is separated by a wall of glazing set between full-height reinforced plaster fins. It provides an intimate setting for private prayer, wakes, and small memorial services. Reconciling the competing demands of privacy and daylight has clearly proved a challenge though. In particular, I could do without the steady presence of footsteps crossing the pavement light above our heads, but this is the one space in the scheme that is someway from taking its final form. At present, it feels pretty frugal. Parry has designed furniture and an altar, and there are plans to commission a tapestry and a mosaic. The overall project cost to date stands at £36 million, and the church needs to raise another £1.6 million to realise all its plans.

The opportunity to introduce contributions from a new generation of artists has also been seized

 

Also accessible off the lower lobby are the Chinese community centre, a recital hall and associated rehearsal rooms. These are all tucked under the public space to the east of the church. The recital hall is a double-height volume around which the other spaces are ranged on two levels. Again, light is an issue but pavement lights have been introduced in the plaza above. Equipped with seating and circumscribed by railings, this space offers a contemplative environment set apart from the pedestrian flow that animates the north precinct. Get there early enough and you will find members of the Chinese community practising their morning tai chi.

Spatial clarity

The other major components of the project were the refurbishment of the Nash terrace and of St Martin’s itself. The terrace comprises three buildings — a rectory, a vestry and the school — at the back of which Parry has introduced a 3m-wide extension. There is nothing at all demonstrative about the addition but by accommodating lifts and vertical service ducts, it has allowed the functionality and spatial clarity of Nash’s interiors to be greatly enhanced. Extensive remodelling at basement and attic levels have also made for a much more useable set of spaces. The homeless facility, which previously sprawled across a large part of the site, now only requires the use of the school building and the length of the terrace at basement level.

The restoration of the church has involved the cleaning and light repair of its exterior, but the most dramatic transformations are to be found inside. These have been largely related to stripping out changes made in the Victorian era. At the church’s east end, Reginald Blomfield had created a dais, moved the altar forward and introduced heavy choir stalls. The church asked Parry to establish a layout which could happily accommodate a congregation of eight, 80, or — in the case of a large memorial service — 800. He has responded by setting the altar back, losing the choir stalls and exchanging the first two rows of pews for removable seats, laid out on a curve. This creates an intimately scaled setting for small congregations which can be speedily reconfigured to accommodate a concert.

The distinctly lurid colour scheme that was introduced in 1904 — paid for by Harrods! — has also been dropped. Paint scrapings were taken and a new scheme developed based on those findings. It incorporates just three colours — white and two stony hues — supplemented by gilding around the sanctuary. The extraordinary plasterwork of the Italian craftsmen Artari and Bagutti can now be relished in something close to its original appearance.

The opportunity to introduce contributions from a new generation of artists has also been seized. A competition is underway to find a design for a new altar, and the Iranian artist Shirazeh Houshiary has already created a new east window. Her design replaces one introduced in the 1950s, after the original had been destroyed by wartime bombing. It suggests the enigmatic image of a cross seen through water and, in keeping with the interior’s sober character, is entirely monochrome. Its primary form is described by the gentle warping of the criss-cross leading, but a second layer of mark-making has been etched into the panes themselves. The delicacy of the treatment isn’t readily caught on camera, but make the trip to see it when the early morning sun is streaming through and you won’t be disappointed.

This project has been a truly epic undertaking and its completion is doubtless as much a tribute to its architect’s powers of negotiation as to the intelligence it has brought to the design. Faced with a fantastically complex set of challenges, it has somehow maintained a real singularity of vision throughout. Integrating architecture new and old, art commissions, landscape design, a high level of technical invention and a hugely optimistic social programme, it is a scheme as impressive as any realised in central London in decades.

Project team

Architect Eric Parry Architects, Clients St Martin-in-the-Fields/The Connection at St Martin’s, Conservation consultant Caroe & Partners, Structural engineer Alan Baxter & Associates, Building services engineer Max Fordham, Project manager/QS Gardiner & Theobald

Listen to Eric Parry talk about the project at the RSA

 

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