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The last century produced some staggering places of worship but many are misunderstood and under threat, warns Elain Harwood
Churches are Cinderellas of the modern movement, so often seen as embodying all that is most traditional in British architecture and culture.
“We all know the purpose of a church, which is a simple one in that it is fixed, unalterable and therefore does not involve the architect in a search for improvements in the programme he is initially set, as a factory often does, or a hospital,” wrote the critic JM Richards in March 1957. How wrong he was!
Already churches were becoming more open, single spaces, often with the choir and organ pushed to the side or rear, while modern art was making a striking impact and community halls were making up for the lack of social facilities in new housing estates and suburbs.
Nugent Francis Cachemaille-Day, Giles Gilbert Scott and Edward Maufe were producing modern designs with sparing if sometimes eclectic classical or gothic details. Above all there was Ninian Comper, a dedicated church specialist admired by Richards as well as by churchmen like John Betjeman. His marriage of classical and gothic synthesised what might have happened had there been no Reformation in Britain. He set his screens and ciboria within very wide, flexible spaces designed to give the congregation a good view of the altar, with elements drawn from the earliest churches visited by him on a series of trips to Italy in the 1900s.
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