High-end Bosch appliances, carpeted bedrooms, generous storage – and a three-storey wooden cross right outside the window. The apartments of Upper Place sound like any other new development in east London, sold on their edgy urban location and proximity to artisanal coffee shops, except these particular flats come with the added promise of bringing you closer to God. Other blocks might boast a private gym, but here you can pop downstairs to see the priest for a workout of a more spiritual kind.
Sandwiched between a Tesco Express and a used-furniture shop, this new holy housing project is a surprising thing to encounter on a high street in Hackney. The supersized wooden cross is bolted to a gigantic white concrete frame, projecting out in front of rows of balconies adorned with balustrades tinted in a range of bright Tooty Frootie colours, as if a nod to a stained-glass window. A big TV screen at the entrance advertises the lively services of the Upper Clapton United Reformed Church that await within, conducted by the charismatic white-suited Rev John Macaulay in a large ground-floor space, illuminated from above by a cross-shaped skylight. The German modernist architect Mies van der Rohe was fond of saying: “God is in the details.” Here, he’s writ large all across the building.
This unlikely edifice is the latest project by Thornsett, a developer with a track record of partnering with church groups to maximise their assets, building housing on their land to pay for new church facilities. Ten minutes down the road, the company is nearing completion on Hackney Gardens, a scheme of 58 luxury apartments in the grounds of the Church of St John-at-Hackney, along with a community centre and new public space, appropriately named Prodigal Square. “Your new secret … in a natural oasis of calm,” coos the brochure, listing two-bedroom flats for £825,000.
For more pious members of the congregation, such partnerships might sound like a deal with the devil. But, in these straitened times for churches across the country, it looks increasingly like a necessary bargain, and one that comes with added benefits. Using money generated by the sale of the swanky homes in Hackney Gardens, match-funded by a Heritage Lottery grant, the handsome grade II*-listed Georgian church is undergoing a £5m refurbishment by doyen of minimalism, John Pawson, and acclaimed stage designer, Es Devlin, to be reborn as an atmospheric space for church services, concerts and community events. Under the leadership of hipster worker’s jacket-wearing Rev Al Gordon, the church has already seen the likes of Coldplay, Ed Sheeran and Robbie Williams play there, while a brewery and restaurant help fund a weekly lunch club for the homeless.
The flexible nature of the English planning system has allowed for a degree of negotiation in projects like this, whereby as long as the developer can demonstrate community benefit – in the provision of a community centre or active programme of community services – they are permitted to build less affordable housing than would usually be required. At St John’s, eight out of the 57 units will be affordable, while none of the Clapton flats are, as Thornsett was allowed to make a contribution to affordable housing elsewhere in the borough instead.
“It can be a difficult argument,” says Thornsett director, Bernadette Cunningham. “Many church congregations rightly want to see more affordable housing, but they have to understand that it doesn’t pay for itself. Of course, housing is important, but so are all of these other needs, like nursery care, dementia groups, Alcoholics Anonymous and death cafes.” As she often tells hesitant congregations, nervous about building anything above their church: “Land is scarce, and God is not making any more.”
A number of Thornsett’s projects are now on display in the atmospheric crypt of St Mary Magdalene in Paddington, one of London’s greatest 19th-century churches (recently used to film Les Misérables), in a new exhibition of 23 contemporary faith buildings organised by the AF. Titled Congregation, it paints a fascinating picture of the ingenious ways that churches, mosques, synagogues and more are responding to the different pressures they face, be it dwindling congregations and leaky postwar buildings, or the need to accommodate thousands of worshippers and a herd of sacred cattle, as a new Hare Krishna Haveli in Hertfordshire necessitated.
“All the buildings seem to strive towards a sense of timelessness,” says Architecture Foundation director, Ellis Woodman, who co-curated the exhibition with Rosie Gibbs-Stevenson, “yet they are also a reflection of their immediate social, economic and environmental pressures.” Green credentials loom large as an expression of spiritual values, while commercial realities are plain to see in projects that flank Victorian steeples with residential blocks. While many of the Christian examples are having to cross-subsidise their building’s refurbishment or replacement with a range of secular uses, the exhibition shows mosques in Cambridge and the East End expanding to accommodate growing congregations, with powerful architectural expressions that reflect a modern British Muslim identity. Shahed Saleem’s Shahporan Masjid on Hackney Road is a particularly striking example, avoiding the usual pastiche to create something that fits with its context but is also distinctively other. As Saleem has said: “The buildings should be reflective of Britishness, and with that I mean us accepting, acknowledging, and taking on the fact we are a product of this country, of this place, and we can’t pretend that we’re not.”
Elsewhere, a sample of John Pawson’s sumptuously carved dark wooden panelling for the Hackney Church is displayed near a model of The Lighthouse, an £11m beacon for Holy Trinity in Swiss Cottage, designed by Haworth Tompkins. Presenting a six-storey-high rose window to the street, it will contain a gym, street cafe, rehearsal rooms, teaching spaces, sheltered accommodation and staff housing, alongside the 500-seat worship and performance space – roofed with a geometric ceiling that mirrors the rose window on the facade. It is the kind of church as mixed-use community hub that many are trying to diversify towards in order to boost attendance and ensure use beyond Sunday mornings alone.
It is exactly the path that St Mary Magdalene has followed, too, as a scene of half-term chaos revealed last week. The grade I-listed church was recently extended with a jewel-like cafe and performance space by Dow Jones Architects, providing essential catering and toilet facilities and creating a vital community asset for the second-most deprived ward in London. Witnessing the riotous scenes of crafts and games taking place beneath the soaring gothic arches and painted ceilings in the church’s monumental nave, it’s hard to deny, even as a cynical atheist, that faith buildings have a useful future in them yet.