John Soane had a lot on his hands but with the built version of a pattern book and accomplished craftsmen he pulled it off, says Gillian Darley
Sometimes, even after a series of catastrophes, a strong, simple building can still reveal its original architectural quality – in unexpected ways. St John’s Bethnal Green has had more than its share of disaster, burnt out in the 1870s and unsympathetically reconstructed, before falling victim to an air raid in 1941.
Logically, there should be almost nothing to point to the hand of its original architect, John Soane. It was one of the 1818 Commissioners’ churches, the so-called Waterloo churches built to mark the end of the Napoleonic wars, among the many dozens built throughout the country to accommodate the hoped-for new congregations in fast-expanding industrialising cities. Soane was responsible for three, all in London, a very reluctant ecclesiastical architect due to the constraints of scrimped budgets and his own distance from establishment religion.
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