Belarusian Memorial Chapel
The Belarusian Memorial Chapel is the first wooden church built in London since the Great Fire of 1666. Designed by Spheron Architects, the chapel in Woodside Park has been built for the Belarusian diaspora community in the UK, and is dedicated to the memory of victims of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
The chapel sits surrounded by 13 limes trees and 4 birches, rising up to 20 metres in height, all statutorily protected in the grounds of Marian House, a community and cultural centre for the UK Belarusian community in north London. Its design offers a mixture of traditional and contemporary elements and, like many rural churches in Belarus, the chapel will offer a gentle presence among the trees of its garden setting.
The chapel was designed by Spheron Architects, an emerging London-based architecture practice, following painstaking research into Belarus’s wooden church tradition. Spheron Architects Tszwai So spent time in Belarus, record- ing and sketching traditional churches in the villages populating the rural areas.
The after-effects of the nuclear reactor explosion were felt particularly severely in Belarus, where 70% of the fallout fell, forcing many thousands of people to leave their homes and resettle around the world, including in the UK. The domed spire and timber shingle roof are common features of hundreds of traditional churches in Belarus and will offer familiarity, comfort and memories to London's Belarusian community, many of whom moved to the UK following the Chernobyl disaster, while others have displaced by subsequent political and economic upheaval in their homeland.
Timber is chosen as the primary building material for two reasons:
- The Chapel serves two functions, as a place of worship for the Belarusian Diaspora community and as a memorial dedicated to the victims of Chernobyl. Hundreds of villages were razed to the ground and people displaced as a result, wooden churches were the focal points of these villages populating rural Belarus, and were part of peoples' collective memory.
- The Chapel will sit surrounded by 17 trees subject to Tree Protection Orders, in order to minimize risk of damaging the roots of the protected trees, it ought to be a light weight structure with a very shallow foundation.
Spheron Architects have introduced a series of contemporary twists to the basic traditional form, however, such as the undulating timber frill of the flank walls which enlivens the exterior. Natural light enters through low-level and concealed clerestory windows running the length of the chapel, and through tall frosted windows on the front elevation. At night, soft light from within al- lows the chapel to gently glow. Inside the chapel will be decorated with a series of historic icons set into a timber screen separating the nave from the al- tar area in the apse.
The layout of the chapel is very elemental, with a projecting vestibule (the porch) with an ornate bell tower, a single Nave for the congregation and an altar on a raised floor within the polygonal apse at the rear. The structure therefore is immediately recognisable as a place of worship.
The interior is entirely wooden, no other finishes, just wood. It is based on jointed and pegged timber construction in the English (and, more broadly, Western and Central European tradition), not the logcabin building technique of East Slav countries. The posts forming the west wall and tower are interspersed with glass, so that the building can be seen to glow from within when the lights are on during hours of darkness, a reference to the tragic historic events during the WWII, when Nazis troops burnt down many wooden churches of Belarus with villagers locked inside. The lateral walls are enormous slabs of laminated timber, yet supported at either end on posts, allow- ing for strips of translucent glass above and below, belying the initial impression of huge solidity.
The 69 sq.m chapel has been funded by the Holy See, and replaces the Belarusian Catholic Mission’s makeshift place of worship inside the existing community centre. Accommodating up to 40 people, the new chapel serves not only as an important spiritual focus for the Belarusian community, but also as a lasting memorial to the victims of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.
This project is saturated in Belarusian historical and cultural symbolism, while also firmly embedded in UK architectural innovation. This chapel stands as a visible spiritual token, a ray of hope and an expression of faith by the Belarusian community in the face of disaster.
Whilst being a focal point for Belarusian locals to enjoy and utilise, the Chapel aims to be viewed with welcoming curiosity by everyone, and encourage interest in that country from which its artistic inspiration was drawn.
The intent for the construction and services design is to minimise the overall energy consumption, maintenance burden as well as carbon footprints throughout the lifecycle of the building.
The principal structural frame was made from Douglas Fir and prefabricated off site. It went up in just a few days, infilled with pine CLT panels manufactured in Spain. The timber floor is made up of 35mm thick T&G Douglas Fir boards and the entrance doors and handles are also made from Douglas Fir with infill glazing.
With the exception of the floor boards and entrance doors, which are finished in a clear lacquer, the entire interior is of natural unfinished wood
The internal area is approximately 69sqm and is level throughout with the exception of the raised altar, which is 200mm above finished floor level and only accessible to the clergy. The altar is divided by the iconostasis, which is again formed of Douglas Fir posts with infill CLT panels, occasionally broken by the Royal Doors, made from Douglas Fir.
600mm high fixed thermally broken frameless glazing units run at low level along within the nave with clerestory glazing running around the perimeter of the chapel with further glazing units in the tower. All double glazed units are 28mm thick made up of two panes of toughened glass with clear outer pane consisting of low-e soft coat (cavity face) and inner pane Pilkington Optifloat Opal.
The warm roof and cupola are clad in Canadian cedar shingles with the cupo- la housing a bell donated by Chevetogne Abbey, Belgium. Above that is a ventilation stack made up of oak grilles with insect mesh internally. The dome is a timber frame structure clad entirely in lead. This is topped off with a metal cross, anchored within the dome.
Ventilation and heating
The chapel is ventilated by two heat recovery units located within the floor void beneath the altar. These units will provide fresh-air for occupants and will also provide background heating for the chapel. Each unit will have an electric heating coil. These units will provide rapid warm-up of the space pri- or to use. Once the chapel is warm and is occupied the units will run primarily as heat recovery units with the electric heating coils off.
Access for maintenance is to be provided through hatches in the floor adjacent to each unit. Hatches are to be of the same thickness as the floor and fitted with rubber seals to ensure a good fit and to minimise noise break-out. Air is supplied into the chapel through vertically mounted grilles on the front of the altar step. Each of the two grilles is connected to a builders work plenum. Air is ducted from each of the heat-recovery units into this plenum. The ductwork connections between heat-recovery units and plenum are fitted with attenuators. All ductwork is to be thermally lagged.
Air is returned to the heat-revery units through floor mounted grilles at the sides and rear edge of the altar. The floor void is used as a plenum for the return air. The return-air inlets to the heat-recovery units are fitted with attenuators.
Fresh-air and exhaust air louvres are located at low-level at the rear of the chapel. Air is ducted form these louvres to/from the heat-recovery units via builders work plenums.
An additional exhaust air path is provided through the chapel’s tower, this is particularly useful in summer when natural buoyancy will allow warm-air to be exhausted directed to outside.