This project completes the redevelopment of the crypt at Christ Church Spitalfields - a Grade I listed building by Nicholas Hawksmoor, completed in 1729, and widely regarded as his masterpiece.
The project follows the restoration of the nave of the church by the Friends of Christ Church, which was completed in 2003.
June 2015 saw the completion of the painstaking restoration of the 1734 Richard Bridge organ, led by the Friends of Christ Church Spitalfields.
Richard Bridge’s organ was installed soon after the completion of the church, and was the largest in the country at the time, remaining so into the next century. Its tone was described as “unexcelled, combining sweetness with great dignity, breadth and power”. it is rumoured to have been played by Handel.
During the nineteenth century, however,
the organ and its case were modified to reflect Victorian tastes; the carved limewood and mahogany case were varnished a deep brown, and the instrument adapted to create more dynamic contrast. This project has restored both the case and the instrument to its Baroque condition.
The organ restoration project has been project managed by Dow Jones Architects and completed in June 2015. The instrument has been restored by William Drake; it was indeed his last work before his death in 2014, with the work completed by Geert Noppers and Joost de Boer in his studio. The case was restored by David Luard, and Nicholas Thistlethwaite, precentor at Guildford Cathedral, and William McVicker, organ curator at the Royal Festival Hall, were musical consultants.
Redevelopment of the Crypt
The crypt of the church has been used in a number of ways but never until now opened to the public. It was most recently a parish base while the nave was being restored, and before that a night shelter for alcoholic men run by the Spitalfields Crypt Trust (now operating up the road in by St Leonard’s in Shoreditch).
In November 2008, the rector, PCC and Friends of Christ Church Spitalfields held a design competition to appoint an architect for the crypt redevelopment. The competition was judged by architects Eric Parry and Adam Caruso, and the competition was won by Dow Jones Architects.
The brief for the project was to provide spaces for performance, prayer and the parish, as well as a cafe and w.c.s and a catering kitchen able to service events in the nave (which vary from receptions for 600 people to dinners for 250). The ambition was for the crypt to feel connected to but different from the nave, to operate independently but also support activities happening in the nave.
The project has been funded by a generous donation by the Monument Trust, who also funded the restoration of the nave and of the organ.
Christ Church was built on the edge of the City
of London. This marginal condition is as relevant now as it was in 1729 – the church sits between the wealth of the City and Tower Hamlets, the seventh most deprived local authority district in England. It is a juxtaposition which has brought and continues to bring an extraordinary cultural dynamic to the neighbourhood.
Hawksmoor’s response was to design the west eleva- tion as a triumphal arch, explicitly used a city gate to represent the connection between centre and edge.
Dow Jones Architects’ proposal brings the city into the crypt as a stone topography with a ramp and ground that make a public space within the masonry structure. On that stone ground, and contained by Hawksmoor’s revealed structure, sit timber buildings forming the different rooms of the crypt. These tim- ber buildings define the place in between the edge and centre of the city.
As a buried space, the crypt has no public face and its connections to the city are restricted. The design brings a single ramped entrance down into the crypt, taking the York stone of the city ground down into the crypt. This simple device provides disabled access to a listed building in a way which does not discriminate in any way, but also makes a primary move towards connecting the crypt to the life of the city outside.
Old and new Structure
A very important part of the project is reveal- ing Hawsmoor’s structure, and defining what is old and what is new. Our structure is lightweight and reversible. It was very important to us to make very clear the placement of new and old alongside each other. We have stripped back rather than covered up, avoided any sense of ‘building in’, and kept all services away from the vaults.
Hawksmoor’s structure had been covered by paint and blockwork walls built in a piecemeal way over the years. A significant moment in the project was the photographing of the crypt as one space, which had not been seen since the 1740s when the crypt began to be used for burials. David Grandorge produced a series of photographs of the crypt, which were exhibited in the rectory (Hawksmoor’s only house) and donated the proceeds of the sales
of the prints to the Spitalfields Crypt Trust.
The mainly portland stone columns were stripped of paint, and the brick vaulting, which was generally plastered and had large concrete repairs, were lime rendered and limewashed. The render unifies the space of the vaults and reflects light.
The entrance vestibule is the only area of brick- work that has never been plastered; this space forms the main entrance to the crypt.
The new timber structure is designed to sit away as discrete elements rather than forming cohesive walls. The design and placement of the oak walls makes a clear distinction between the old and new and creates open views along the length and width of the space.
We were interested in making a space that has a character that is complementary to but distinct from the nave. Our design strategy is inspired by Hawksmoor’s use of materials in the church up- stairs but detailed in a contemporary way.
Within the primary masonry structure, we have introduced the york stone floor of the city street and walls made of oak. In the nave, the dark varnished oak sits within the masonry structure of the church building and makes a place of habitation like win- dow seats, stairs and balconies.
In the crypt, the oak is left unvarnished and crisp. Hierarchy is created by having two sorts of panel- ling. The walls to the primary spaces are made like plank and muntin walls with staggered boards (as Hawksmoor made the rooms in the vicarage). In the back of house areas such as the offices and kitchen, the walls are detailed as flush tongued and grooved.
The metal ramp balustrade, like the York stone floor, brings the material language of the street into the crypt. Finer elements are made of bronze, such as handrails, ironmongery and lights.
A key element of the design is making use of the natural light from the crypt windows. All of the windows light the public spaces of the crypt, allow- ing you to see the life of the city outside.
The timber rooms - the hall, lounge and prayer space - have glass doors to allow natural light to enter the space.
The crypt has a range of spaces with a wide spectrum of uses; as a result the demands on the environmental conditions are complex. Our services strategy has been to organize the spaces in the crypt to use as much natural light and ventilation as pos- sible, and to augment this with a mechanical system.
Our intervention has a simple strategy that uses the new oak walls to contain the ducts and distribute services around the space. The detailing of the oak boarded walls accommodates air supply, acoustic at- tenuation, lighting, AV and other technical requirements of the space so that the original vaults are left free form the clutter that contemporary buildings accrue.
The bronze signage is designed by Polimekanos.
In order to maintain its grade 1 listed building, the church family has a sustainable business plan making both the nave and crypt available for venue hire. The church relies on venue hire, and this has brought an additional layer of complexity to the design project and brief. The spaces must respond to the overlapping and sometimes simultaneous needs of the parish users, the business manager and the catering partner, while providing a seamless
and welcoming public space. A central part of this project was working with the catering consultant for the design of the catering kitchen and cafe.
This project comes at a key time for the church who have a growing congregation, and have recently restored their church hall in a neighbouring street.
Andy Rider, Rector
Ida Scudder the medical missionary to Vellore said ‘We are not building a hospital, we are build- ing the kingdom of God’ I would say the same: ‘we are not about building a building but building the kingdom of God’ But Church communities in the UK inhabit some of the most beautiful buildings around and Christ Church Spitalfields is one of the very best.
Developing our crypt with Dow Jones has been one of the most enjoyable, professional and creative projects I have had the pleasure to undertake. The spaces we have created were once home to the dead today they become a place of welcome, meeting, eat- ing and learning for the living -they will serve the church family, the community and the nation for years to come.
An amazingly beautiful and simple space comes to life.