St John at Hackney: Fresh charm and grace for a radical building
- Credit: Gilbert McCarragher
During the late 18th century the art of architecture experienced a brief moment of geometric clarity, as architects of the period chose to put aside the decorative elements of classical architecture for more planar and sparingly articulated buildings.
This style is known as Biedermeier, but within these shores, this form of spartan classical architecture is called the late Georgian period and is principally associated with the architect John Soane and his contemporaries.
Important buildings in London designed by John Soane are the Bank of England, built between 1792-1826, and the Dulwich Picture Gallery, completed in 1817.
In 1810 John Soane wrote: “The ancients with great propriety decorated their temples and altars with the skulls of victims, rams heads and other ornament peculiar to their religious ceremonies; but when the same ornaments are introduced into the decoration of English houses, they become puerile and disgusting.”
Underpinning Soane’s broadside against the willy-nilly and decadent use of decoration, was the general search during the period, for a return to naturalness and authenticity in both architecture, everyday morality, and faith.
It is in this light that we can see the recently refurbished church of St John at Hackney, built in 1792 and designed by architect James Spiller (1761-1829), colleague and friend of John Soane, as a very radical building indeed. Particularly in how Spiller designed the main space through a series of simple planar elemental forms only, that successfully communicate the moral rectitude that Soane and his followers desired.
Since 1792 however, St John at Hackney has undergone many changes and travails, including the removal of the original side façade pediments, the blowing out of the east facing windows by a local explosion and the rebuilding of the roof due to water damage.
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Apart from its large size, which is remarkable for a parish church, the importance of St John at Hackney has gone largely unnoticed for some time, allowing this grand building to slowly fade into its surroundings and not get the full attention it deserves.
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Luckily for Hackney though, in 2015 the wardens of the church decided to launch an architectural competition to refurbish the building and bring it back to its original Georgian splendour.
The winning team, internationally renowned designer John Pawson and architects Thomas Ford and Partners, have since this date with local builders Rooff, lovingly restored the building, by going back to James Spillers drawings, to understand the original architectural intentions for the building.
The design team have also added new elements that extend the spartan aesthetic, such as the visually luxurious dark stained oak ribbed internal wall layer, that wraps around the space and a new raised platform to house a minimally designed altar and to act as a stage for live music.
The overall effect is of a well-crafted space of much charm and grace, that expertly mixes both modern and Georgian elements, creating a building that faithfully re-presents the original building in all its architectural glory, whilst also cleverly showing how the late Georgian search for classical rigour, chimes so well with our contemporary desires for authenticity though minimalism.
The church also now has a white marble topped bar too, serving local artisan beer!
So for those of us who would not normally grace the doors of a church can find liquid, if not spiritual sustenance.
- Gordon Shrigley is a Hackney-based architect (https://gordon-shrigley-architecture.co.uk/)