Worth Abbey Church by Heatherwick Studio
New furniture and cleaned-up concrete enhances Francis Pollen’s original design
Designer Heatherwick Studio
Location Worth, near Crawley, West Sussex
Completed July 2011
Worth Abbey Church, built between 1965 and 1975, was designed by Francis Pollen and is considered by many to be the best example of his style. In his book on the architect, Alan Powers writes that the church “in its grandeur and simplicity, has a pure architectural quality which proclaims it a masterpiece”.
The church, which overlooks the South Downs, is used by the Abbey’s 25 English Benedictine monks as well as the school, parish and retreat that they run. Made from concrete and brick, it features a remarkable conical sloping roof.
In plan the church consists of a circle inscribed in a square. The congregation fans out in a radial pattern with the floor raked down to the altar. A monks’ choir occupies the space between two chapels.
Funding issues meant Pollen’s scheme was never fully completed, and the chairs for the congregation and monastic choir were loose and had a temporary quality.
In 2006 the abbey appointed Heatherwick Studio “to complete the church”. This involved designing new fixed furniture as well as carrying out the first major refurbishment since it opened.
The concrete had been severely stained by water and rust. It was cleaned using a dry ice-blasting method, whereby pellets of frozen CO2 were shot at the walls.
The practice installed lighting and opened up chapel skylights. A new sound system was fitted and the organ system refurbished.
Heatherwick Studio designed pews to reflect the geometry of the church, with a curved form echoing the circular roof. Their laminated construction creates a large-scale east-west grain, which runs throughout the seats in reference to the square walls.
The number of seats had to increase from 560 to 676, and the abbey asked for fixed kneelers to be introduced.
The pews are made from layers of American black walnut with an ash interlayer. Their simple form clearly expresses the three elements of a seat, a back and a kneeler.
Project architect Peter Ayres says: “Constructing the pews was a huge challenge, and we were lucky to be working with such a skilled fabricator as Swift Horsman.”
Since timber needs to expand and contract across its grain, the laminated design of the pews calls for a concealed mild steel sub-frame to support the seat and kneeler. This frame is loosely connected to the timber elements, letting them expand and contract, and transferring any loads into the steel. The frame stops short of the floor, so that the load is transferred back into adjustable timber legs.
A steel outrigger connects the seat to the kneeler, providing additional stability. Steel prongs extending into the seat backs are held in place by shock-absorbing silicon, and the brackets connecting them to the frame include a layer of shock absorption — an important factor when up to 14 people sit down simultaneously.
Monastic Choir furniture
The original layout of the monastic choir combined the idea of a central altar with some of the traditional layout of a face-to-face monastic choir. The monks sat in individual, loosely arranged chairs.
Heatherwick Studio has rearranged the monastic choir into a single line on one piece of furniture. Its horseshoe form focuses attention on the altar. Seating is provided for 31 monks, with the central seat used by the principal celebrant.
The school choir is behind the monastic choir in two rows of benches accessed by two short flights of stairs. Hard surface flooring has improved acoustics.
To accommodate the monastic choir stalls, the tiered space had to be excavated by 2m and the side chapels underpinned to create a level floor.
The monastic furniture consists of high-backed seats, a kneeler and an angled desk. The 1.5m-high backs help to reflect sound. The seats also feature high armrests which the monks can lean on when standing.
The 400mm deep seats are based on traditional misericords and flip up to provide a perch on which to rest during long services. They are hinged, with a fingerhold groove carved underneath on the outer edge.
The 40mm-thick American black walnut was CNC cut to shape, then laminated together using bespoke jigs.
A 0.6mm line of ash between the black walnut layers creates a detail that runs throughout the whole collection of furniture.
Client Worth Abbey Construction, Designer Heatherwick Studio, M&E engineer BLR Associates, Lighting designer DPA Lighting, Acoustic analysis Arup Acoustics, QS FT Allen, Main contractor Kier Longley, Furniture maker Swift Horsman, Organ refurbishment Wyvern Organs, System designer Sound