Dow Jones on refurbishing a Hawksmoor crypt

Alun Jones, ‘Dow Jones on refurbishing a Hawksmoor crypt ’, in: Building Design (London, UK: April 2012)


Dow Jones partner Alun Jones on how Spitalfields’ mythos held the key to refurbishing a famed Hawksmoor crypt

In 2009 you won the competition to design the £2 million refurbishment of the crypt at Nicholas Hawksmoor’s Christ Church Spitalfields. How did you answer the brief?

The brief was very simple. It stipulated the provision of three key spaces: a public café, a performance space and a chapel. The rest was up to us. The vaulted crypt has been used as a homeless shelter and is crudely subdivided into cell-like rooms. Our proposal was to remove the partitions and position three oak pavilions within the crypt. These discrete objects contain the functional parts of the brief — such as the loos, kitchen and green room — while the key spaces are formed in the remaining areas between. The pavilions extend up only to a certain horizon, in line with the top of the Portland stone columns. This preserves the continuity of the crypt and allows light entering the long side aisles to pass over the pavilions and deep into the plan.

Your intervention at the Museum of Garden History (BD Works December 12 2008) was physically separated from the existing structure. Have you extended this approach to help preserve Christ Church?

The church was built between 1714 and 1729, is grade I listed and arguably Hawksmoor’s most important work — it’s certainly of far greater inherent value than the Garden Museum. However, our concept came more from the position of Spitalfields within the mythos of London. It’s in a transitional zone, culturally and physically, beyond the city walls. Almost uniquely among his church designs, Hawksmoor stacked two triumphal arches on top of each other to form the church’s west front. The city gate is an architectural type that reconciles the centre with the edge: Hawksmoor’s facade explicitly expresses this marginal condition. Our design adopts a similar strategy of reconciliation of the centre and the edge: the pavilions occupy the middle territory, without touching the edges of the crypt.

Credit: Dow JonesDow Jones’ new oak-lined chapel will be “an intense personal space for prayer”.

You seem to be amplifying an opposition of object and architecture.

We are making clear what is by Hawksmoor and what’s not. The brickwork vaults will be lime-washed in order to dematerialise the existing structure into light while retaining the form and texture of the material. Our pavilions will be items of joinery made from oak. We learned from the Museum of Garden History that a new insertion doesn’t need to feel like a pod, or a morphologically alien presence within the building.

What drove your choice of materials?

The palette comes from Hawksmoor. The main church is finished in white plaster with a Purbeck marble floor, and has no stained-glass windows. A gallery of deeply polished oak has been inserted into this bright environment. The external walls are also lined up to a horizon with oak panelling that folds seamlessly into the window reveals to make seats. The wood manages the moments of human inhabitation. The seats, doors, galleries and pews are made from the same material.

You have designed a new, secret chapel, entered obliquely from the corner of the public café.

Our chapel is the obverse space to the nave, where the overwhelming experience is of light. It’s a dark, enclosed oak box with its own vaulted ceiling which traces the form of the brick vault above. Appropriately for Christian worship, it faces East, under an existing window. That was fortunately the only location where we could use direct natural light, and we’ve tried to create a very intense, personal space for prayer.

Crypts are usually hidden, quiet spaces. How are you reconciling this solemn setting with the brief of providing accessible, secular space?

The challenge is to make the crypt part of the wider community. We resolved this by considering it part of the ground, ingrained in the city. The ground in London is artificial, so we felt we could add another layer to suit our purposes. We proposed a continuous, polished limestone terrazzo floor that will pour down from the street outside and flow into the crypt.

This reflective surface draws on the work of photographer Rut Blees Luxemburg. She documented the Piccadilly line from above ground, and took photographs that picked out the names of each of the tube stations reflected in puddles. The reflections make gateways to a hidden, parallel underworld.

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