'Hackney's tin tabernacle and building in outer space'

Outside the Sight of Eternal Life Church in Shrubland Road

Patricia, Janet, Kerry, Sharon, Reverend Daley, Tiffany, Dalian and Sandra photographed outside the Sight of Eternal Life Church in Shrubland Road - Credit: Marcus Bastel

What is the best way to build in outer space?    

To answer this, you need to decide if it is easier to make your space home down here in pieces small enough to be put inside a rocket or up there, from materials you find on other planets or passing asteroids.

In 1829, Henry Robertson Palmer, engineer to the then London Docks, filed patent number 5786 for: “My improvement or improvement’s in the construction of warehouses, sheds, and other buildings…consists in the application of metallic plates or sheets, in a fluted, indented, or corrugated form, to the purposes, in relation to buildings.”

Palmer's radical invention of fluted corrugated iron roof and wall panels inaugurated modern industrial architecture and the idea that buildings could be made from flat-pack panels and shipped to any place in the empire.

A detail from Kilburn's corrugated iron Cambridge Hall (tin tabernacle)

A detail from Kilburn's corrugated iron Cambridge Hall (tin tabernacle) - Credit: Gordon Shrigley

Before the invention of Palmer’s corrugated panels most buildings were made of heavy quantities of brick, stone and wood, held together with congealed mud or wooden dowels.

The invention of corrugated panels held out the possibility that buildings could be manufactured from highly engineered modular parts, that could be easily fixed together wherever they were needed and then simply dismantled and moved to another location.

Leon and son outside the Sight of Eternal Life Church in Shrubland Road

Leon and son outside the Sight of Eternal Life Church in Shrubland Road - Credit: Marcus Bastel

It may be difficult to imagine, but the first corrugated buildings in the early 19th century caused both amazement and fear. As for some, corrugated buildings expressed the revolutionary spirit of industrial Capitalism and for others, simply the death of traditional architecture.

A portrait of Rosie outside the Sight of Eternal Life Church in Shrubland Road

A portrait of Rosie outside the Sight of Eternal Life Church in Shrubland Road - Credit: Marcus Bastel

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It is with such thoughts in mind, that I would like to suggest we re-evaluate the grade II "Tin Tabernacle" in Shrubland Road, Hackney. As the Sight of Eternal Life Church is not just the oldest example of a corrugated iron chapel in the UK, but is also part of a more complex story, that begins with Palmer's radical invention and culminates in the construction of the similarly astounding modular aluminium International Space Station.

Most of our homes though are still made from a mixture of brick, wood and concrete and so it would appear that Palmer's invention and the possibility of mass modular metal housing never really took off, outside of the architectural avant-garde and the space program.

A portrait of Alex outside the Sight of Eternal Life Church in Shrubland Road

A portrait of Alex outside the Sight of Eternal Life Church in Shrubland Road - Credit: Marcus Bastel

There is still the possibility though that the homes of the future will be built in automated factories from modular carbon fibre or bio materials, if we are to realise the modern low energy smart homes we all wish for.

To achieve this the current building industry would need to be revolutionised to offer a wide variety of flat-pack models that allow easy maintenance, upgrading, customisation and recycling.

Eleanor and Jo outside the Sight of Eternal Life Church in Shrubland Road

Eleanor and Jo outside the Sight of Eternal Life Church in Shrubland Road - Credit: Marcus Bastel

The former owners of the Shrubland Road chapel eventually replaced the original corrugated iron panels with corrugated asbestos, which in retrospect may not have been such a good idea. Nevertheless, it certainly shows the flexibility of panel made buildings and how easily their facades can be changed.

Hackney’s Tin Tabernacle has been inviting its parishioners to sing joy and praise to the heavens above for nearly 200 years. I would suggest that corrugated buildings are also a more material link between heaven and earth too, as we start to explore space in modular craft that are the children of Palmer’s radical invention.

Gordon Shrigley is a Hackney based architect. Marcus Bastel is a Hackney-based photographer who specialises in capturing scenes from everyday life.

Jade outside the Sight of Eternal Life Church in Shrubland Road

A portrait of Jade outside the Sight of Eternal Life Church in Shrubland Road - Credit: Marcus Bastel