Monday, 17 December 2012

Immaculate Misconception

Malling Abbey (see below for more photos)

Malling Abbey Church, Kent

Maguire & Murray (1962-6)

Maguire and Murrays’ powerful ensemble of buildings designed in the 1960’s for Malling Abbey includes a new church built from cheap concrete blocks and a cloister, all sensitively integrated into the significant Norman and medieval remains of the original foundation.  Although the church suffered major structural failure and alteration within a few years of completion, their work at the abbey is now Listed Grade 1 in recognition of its outstanding quality. 
In a career spanning 50 years, much of it working in partnership with designer Keith Murray (1929-2005), Robert Maguire (born 1931) designed some remarkable churches.  An ability to create transcendent space using common materials and a language of pitched roofs, often inspired by traditional forms, is characteristic of Maguire’s approach.  A communal focus to worship is typically provided by a lofty top-lit central volume set above a broad rectangular plan.  The churches reflect changing attitudes to liturgy and worship in the post-war period, also manifest in the work of Rudolph Schwarz and Dominikus Bohm in and around Cologne.  However Maguire’s construction and structure vary greatly, from the robust rational, almost industrial, language of St Paul’s at Bow Common (1955-60), through to the simplified assembly of walls and roof at St Bede’s in Basingstoke (2002-2007). 

Malling Abbey (1962-6), an early project, may be seen as a transitional stage of Maguire and Murrays’ architectural development.  Built on the site of Bishop Gundulph’s original church (1090) amidst the impressive Norman and medieval remains of the abbey, the diminutive church has a powerful presence. A deep perimeter wall of agricultural concrete block is capped with pre-cast concrete units, each including a small semi-circular window.  Above this sits a heavy concrete pitched roof structure supporting a large clerestory roof curved in plan at each end.  Pantiles are laid over the concrete, visually integrating the modern church with the re-built cloister.  Unlike Lethaby’s parish church at Brockhampton (1902), where thatch covers the simple concrete vaulted roof, lateral forces at Malling were unresolved and within a few years of completion cracks appeared.  Drastic remedial measures were required:  concrete columns were introduced into the previously clear span volume of the worship area to support the clerestory.  In the process, the under-floor heating system was lost, together with subtle stepped level changes, which had proved hazardous to elderly nuns attending office in the small hours of the night.  Unhappy about these alterations to their design, Maguire and Murray did not return to the abbey. 

Was the structural failure solely the consequence of an error in the structural calculations, or the symptom of a more profound misreading of architectural form by the architects?  Admittedly, the new columns are hardly a refinement of the space, but neither do they look completely out of place.  In the days before professional engineers, understanding of structural principles was through a process of trial and error that became enshrined in tradition.  As a result, surviving forms often demonstrate a clear correlation between form and structure.  Arguably at Malling, the architects used traditional forms, but did not follow their inherent structural logic.  Perhaps a clue to this misconception lies in the image of the new church juxtaposed with the Norman tower of the original (see photo above).  The new building seems to be at a half or third scale.  Built at a larger scale, it might have accommodated a central volume with a perimeter ambulatory like St Paul’s Bow.  In subsequent projects the architects used lightweight construction to create column-free space with a low perimeter ceiling and soaring top-lit central space.  A narrow slot of glazing separates the roof from the wall, allowing the dramatically modelled ceiling to float above the worship space and recalling Corbusier’s separation of roof and walls in his pilgrimage chapel at Ronchamp (1954).

Maguire and Murrays’ achievement at Malling was to give architectural expression to a new zeitgeist in the post-war church.  When, after an interval of 350 years, a small but determined band of nuns returned to the abbey, it was no longer a formidably wealthy and powerful institution.  Modesty rather than grandeur was called for, but also an expression of continuity with the earlier traditions of the site.  Although the structural logic may have been flawed, Maguire and Murray had a sure feel for scale and materials.  Construction is carefully broken into components of concrete block, pre-cast component and pantile.  Common concrete blocks with exposed aggregate relate surprisingly sympathetically to the ancient stonework of the abbey.  A dynamic interplay of curves and counter curves is established between the lantern, the drape-like curved junction between the lower pantile roof and the clerestory and the tiny semi-circular windows.  The evocation of monumentality in modestly scaled building is a theme also explored by Aldo Rossi in many of his projects, such as the school at Fagnano Olona (1972-6).  The suppression of traditional gutter details to achieve a minimalist eaves profile anticipates Rossi’s cemetery buildings at Modena (1971).  It gives the church a sense of otherness lacking in later projects with traditionally detailed gutters. An interest in the communicative power of re-imagined traditional form is a shared preoccupation.

Entry to the church is from opposite corners.  Members of the community enter through the original doorway from the cloister to the abbey church, into a space with a low concrete soffit, flanked by a cylindrical concrete font and top-lit repository for the reserved sacrament.  Lay visitors may enter directly from the abbey grounds, through a delicate timber pavilion with glazed perimeter screens and a slender layered horizontal roof.  The contrasting character of the two approaches reflects the status of those entering:  either as members of a closed community adhering to a strict discipline of contemplation, or as free agents, choosing to visit. Following the traditional arrangement, the lay chapel is a low space to one side of the sanctuary, from where the nuns’ office can be heard, but not properly seen.

Details are austere.  Fanlights to the semi-circular windows comprise a piece of glass supported on a central pivot and sealed with rubber gaskets, technology akin to a quarter-light on cars of the period.  This reductive approach is also similar to that adopted at Le Corbusier’s Dominican Priory at La Tourette (1956-60) and Lewerentz’s church at Klippan (1963).  The polished bronze ferrule of candle brackets set into the whitewashed block wall recalls the juxtaposition of the ordinary with touches of extravagance from the Arte Povera movement current in Italy at the time.  In a reminder that the project was a product of the 60’s, the Abbess recalls how the subtle re-alignment of the abbey paths was achieved by tracking the route of the architect’s Austin Mini across the lawn (see photos).

A good test of the enduring quality of a building is how well it has withstood unsympathetic changes.  By this measure, the church at Malling Abbey is a resounding success.  Although aspects of scale and structure may have been misconceived, Maguire and Murray put the heart back into an ancient complex of buildings, allowing the spiritual life of the Benedictine Community to be revived.  Their work resonates with vitality and sensitivity to the fabric and life of the abbey.  They are worthy successors to Bishop Gundulph.

The entrance for lay visitors
Concrete block & pre-cast unit construction

New columns and revised floor levels

View from the cloister

Fanlight window
Candle bracket set into whitewashed blockwork
Lantern above reserved sacrament
Aerial view
Cloister - the modern lean-to construction
Cloister glazing
Paths prior to re-alignmnent
Paths fluidly re-aligned along the track of the Mini