One of the UK’s best post-war buildings can be found in east London, although it might be fair to say that you might not realise how good it is if you only look at the outside.
This is St Paul’s Bow Common, a Grade II* listed building that was built in 1958 on the site of a much older church that had been destroyed during WWII and was a fusion of ideas by both architect and vicar.
The architects were Robert Maguire and Keith Murray. The Revd. Gresham Kirkby, a Christian anarchist, was the architects’ client, championing the Liturgical Movement principles and continuing as parish priest until 1994.
While the church looks a bit, umm, brutal from the outside, it’s inside that helps to appreciate why the church wins awards, as it’s quite dramatic. That is, dramatic in a post-war aesthetic, which will as likely as not repel as much as it will appeal to some people.
A large square has replaced the more usual long nave, with people sitting around three sides of a central altar space, which itself is directly underneath the roof windows. The use of large roof windows – a lantern – allows the walls to be solid walls, although made less oppressive by the band of mosaic around the middle. That mosaic, by Charles Lutyens, is considered the largest artist-created contemporary mosaic mural in Britain.
When the church was being designed, the architect wanted a perfect square, but there are a couple of side chapels poking outside the main square, and it’s pointed out to visitors that the horizontal concrete beams intrude slightly into the space as if slightly protesting at being interrupted.
The anchor in one of the chapels is often assumed to refer to the local dock workers but is also a Christian symbol.
The central altar space is raised up on two steps, and the information sign in the church educated me that there’s significance in them thar steps. The altar is raised partly to give it a sense of separation and a boundary from the rest of the floor, but it turns out that most churches have three steps up to the altar as a symbolic representation of Calvary Hill from the Bible.
And there I was thinking that raising the altar space height was just so people at the back of the congregation could see the service.
While I still think the exterior is rather grim, and the sign over the door saying this is the gate to heaven is almost mocking you, the interior is a revelation.
The church was open to the public as part of London Open House.