Page C2.2 . 03 August 2005                     
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    St. Martins Anew


    Later, as London grew, the church became ideally placed amid the cultural treasures of Soho, the West End, Oxford Street, and, from the 1820s, Trafalgar Square.

    Evolving Needs

    Today, although approximately 700,000 people pass through its doors each year for worship, music, or social services, St. Martin-in-the-Fields is in need of repair. Gibbs's church has undergone a variety of alterations since its 18th-century construction that have altered the architectural integrity of the sanctuary.

    Below ground, care services for the needy take place in spaces that "are deteriorating to the point of being unusable," explains Reverend Nicholas Holtam, Vicar of St. Martin's. "They lack universal access, proper ventilation, and natural light, and they frequently flood. We expect that, without action now, St. Martin's would be forced to end many of these valuable activities."

    Much of the church's social outreach takes place in 19th-century burial vaults that were actually condemned as unfit for the dead in the 1850s.

    Restoring Gibbs's Vision

    When it comes time to remodel, restore, and reimagine a historic landmark like St. Martins, however, there can be plethora of potential obstacles. England has strong preservation laws, and there are numerous people in and out of government who must give their approval before work can begin. St. Martin-in-the-Fields first launched a campaign to restore the site in 2003. That construction is planned to begin this year, only two years later, is actually a victory.

    "The key to the whole scheme was to involve the external stakeholders early," Holtam continues, citing as partners organizations such as the British government's Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, Westminster City Council, the Georgian Group (a nonprofit dedicated to preserving Georgian buildings in the United Kingdom) and the Prince's Foundation for the Built Environment. In particular, it was a coup for St. Martins to sign Prince Charles as the official patron for the restoration project, adding muscle to their efforts.

    Restoration will begin with a reordering the east end of the church to restore much of Gibbs's original design. Eric Parry Architects is the London firm crafting this restoration. Firm director Robert Kennett explains the scope of alterations the historic building had suffered.

    Kennett says: "Internally, the reworking during the Victorian period included the reordering of the sanctuary and the introduction of choir stalls, relocation and reduction of the pulpit, infilling the upper levels of the entrance stairs with rooms for the Sunday school, more polychromatic decoration, and the introduction of stained glass in the main windows. In the 20th century, the windows were also reglazed with multicolored glass after the Victorian windows were blown out by a World War II bomb and a second side altar installed."

    Parry's plan "addresses each of these later interventions," Kennett continues, "to create a lighter interior by reglazing the windows with clear, handmade glass; redecoration based on research of the original painting schemes; a new lighting installation; and removing upper rooms above the stairs, reinstating the full height of the arched windows onto Trafalgar Square." The side altar will also be removed, and new movable choir stalls in front will be added for increased flexibility.

    Adding New to Old

    The greatest change at St. Martins, however, will come downstairs. Although the below-ground crypt has become a popular cafe with an adjoining gift shop that helps raise many thousands of pounds each year for the church, the spaces devoted to public service are dank, leaky, and decaying.

    For almost half a century, St. Martins has provided an anchor for London's Chinese community with its Chinese People's Day Center, which is desperately in need of remodeling. What's more, the building across the church's courtyard, where administration for care services as well as a few residential units are clustered, is also woefully dilapidated. The space between the church and the administration building has been underused and sometimes subject to crime.

    Given the familiar historic face of the iconic Roman columns and tall spire of St. Martin's, the boldest architectural move by Eric Parry Architects is a new glass foyer in the church courtyard that will serve as an entrance to the rebuilt below-grade portion of the site. In materials and concept it seems like a more modest version of the pyramid-shaped entrance that I.M. Pei designed for the Louvre Museum, although Kennett says the pyramid was in no way a precedent.

    "The scale and position of the new entrance pavilion is deferential to the portico of the church and the Georgian buildings to the north," he explains. "The pavilion has a system of proportions as the ordering of the church, with a strong plinth of granite supporting a solid wall of stacked glass. The transparency of the glass transforms the wall and allows light to filter into the crypt below."

    Indeed, the entrance pavilion will, in cooperation with a light well toward the back of the public space between buildings, introduce an abundance of natural illumination to spaces that have existed for centuries on candles, gaslights, or fluorescent bulbs. "From the very earliest proposals, the scheme has introduced daylight into the new below-ground spaces," Holtam says, to bring a more "sensual connection to the outside."

    The St. Martin's renovation will also tackle the little-used space behind the church. As Peter Ackroyd, author of London: The Biography has written, for all of the city's striking architecture and landscapes, there are few places in London devoted to quiet contemplation. But the reordered churchyard will be just that, with a water fountain and seating making a more peaceful environment to counter the bustle of Trafalgar Square and Charing Cross Road.

    Above all, the new St. Martin-in-the-Fields will be a unified place, with a historic church, an underground building, a courtyard, and an adjacent building, not merely a decaying series of disconnected architectural elements, but for the first time coming together as something greater than the sum of their parts.

    "St. Martin's is a paragon of living heritage," Reverend Holtam says, "a site of outstanding architectural value that makes an outstanding contribution to the world around it."

    Clearly Gibbs's masterful baroque church is the centerpiece, but the new underground spaces are a marvel in their own right: both for the way they are bathed in natural light and how they will renew the church's mission to assist the less fortunate.

    Discuss this article in the Architecture Forum...

    Brian Libby is a Portland, Oregon-based freelance writer who has also published in Metropolis, The New York Times, Christian Science Monitor, and Architectural Record.



    ArchWeek Image

    St. Martin-in-the-Fields, London, designed in the 18th century by James Gibbs.
    Photo: Brian Libby

    ArchWeek Image

    Artist's concept of the new entry courtyard.
    Image: Lucinda Rogers

    ArchWeek Image

    Computer rendering of the future courtyard entrance to underground functions.
    Image: Eric Parry Architects

    ArchWeek Image

    Longitudinal section of St. Martin-in-the-Fields and its below-grade spaces.
    Image: Eric Parry Architects

    ArchWeek Image

    View to the famous spire from the courtyard entry.
    Image: Eric Parry

    ArchWeek Image

    A light well toward the back of the public space between buildings will provide illumination to spaces below grade.
    Image: Eric Parry

    ArchWeek Image

    Side elevation, St. Martin-in-the-Fields.
    Image: Eric Parry Architects

    ArchWeek Image

    Front elevation.
    Image: Eric Parry Architects


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