Thursday, January 12, 2012

Around London Fields, from an Iron Church to a Clapboard House

I returned to London very early yesterday morning and watched the sunrise from just inside the doors of Heathrow Terminal 4 before returning to Hackney and going for a walk in an attempt to stay awake until sundown (which I managed, though only because the sun sets at four thirty in the afternoon here). It was a nice day, luckily not too cold, and my stroll through the streets around London Fields really reminded me of just why this is my favourite area of London.

I think strange buildings are the best buildings to look at when you're really exhausted, and the Sight of Eternal Life Church (formerly the Congregational Chapel) in Shrubland Road and FAT's Blue House in Garner Street both certainly fulfill one's desire for architectural oddities.

I think the singularity of the Sight of Eternal Life Church is attested to by first reactions upon seeing it. I'd read as much as I could find on the church beforehand, having heard about it from a friend in response to my general interest in temporary prefabricated buildings, but the first phrase out of my mouth upon actually seeing it was "oh, wow". My boyfriend, by contrast, hadn't read anything about it and his first response was confusion, struggling to place the church historically, supposing it to be a post-1960 construction with windows retained from an earlier church.

He was, in fact, just over a hundred years off. This church was built in 1858 for £1250, one of many structures prefabricated as cheap, temporary churches during the iron age, and the windows were added in 1900. As these structures were intended to be temporary, it's rare to find one that's still standing in the 21st century -so rare, actually, that this is the oldest iron church in existence, though there's a smaller one built later in Herbert Road, Bowes Park (in Haringey, N11) currently under threat of demolition. I couldn't stay awake until the 7pm service, but I'm really eager to see inside the church on Shrubland Road.

Iron churches were not looked upon fondly in the late nineteenth century; gothic revivalists, such as (most prominently) Augustus Pugin, frowned upon the use of industrial materials for a religious buildings, but the comparative cost meant that a number of these churches, known later as "tin tabernacles" were built, often being shipped to the colonies. It's interesting to note, looking at the church, that the design tends toward the gothic, with pointed arches on the windows and doors. While Pugin's ideas are a bit dated, the Shrubland Road Church looks surprisingly unloved and, for some strange reason, doesn't even appear in the Pevsner guide for the area. It's also for sale. If I had three million dollars and was looking to buy a church, I'd definitely choose this one.


FAT, as a design practice, also tend to shock the establishment a bit, though in a more contemporary way, constructing buildings that aspire to be irreverent much more than they aspire to be elegant. The Blue House in Garner Street, built in 2000, is the kind of building that will stop anyone in their tracks with a jolt of amusement. The house isn't large, but it's bright blue and the design is unmissable.

Bridget Cherry's sentiments match my own when she writes in the East London edition of Pevsner's Buildings of England series that, with the Blue House, "the walk ends on a comic note". This building is clearly designed to be fun, though it's also clever, with a cut-out facade in the shape of a house placed in front of an office block represented in the same way, the two shapes a clever allusion to the building's dual purpose, both house and office for Sean Griffiths, one of FAT's partners. There's also a clever bulge beside the garage representing a tree.

I was a bit more confused by the side of the house, which similarly has cut-outs at the top, though I couldn't work out exactly what they were meant to represent. They're a reference to Dutch gables, apparently, but I find their presence confusing as the house seems in many ways to encourage passerbys to see it as a two -dimensional statement. This detailing on the side sort of goes against this, as does the fact that you can't easily stand back when viewing the building from the front on the narrow street. Nonetheless, these puzzling subversions of the house's initial statements add interest, as does the facade's simultaneous allusion to and concealment of the house's purpose; while the shapes declare this to be a house with an office function, there's no real indication as to the interior spaces -one can't tell where each floor is, nor how high ceilings are or where rooms are divided, despite the large window at eye level suggesting the possibility of watching the inhabitants. As this is a private residence, I haven't seen inside, though photos on other websites suggest the garish tone of the facade is well complemented by a more minimal, functional interior.

It was getting a bit closer to sundown (4.30) after this, but these buildings injected enough energy to get me back to my house before I fell asleep and I'd recommend looking at them to anyone in need of a little colour and novelty to brighten up their winter.

My knowledge of the church on Shrubland Road is particularly indebted to this website and the details of the site contained in the church's heritage listing, along with Adam Mornement and Simon Holloway's book Corrugated Iron: Building on the Frontier. For FAT's Blue House, I'd recommend the article in the Autumn 2011 issue of Architectural Digest dedicated to postmodernism.

No comments:

Post a Comment