Page C2.1 . 27 September 2006                     
ArchitectureWeek - Culture Department
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Postcard from Bristol

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The Church of St. Werburghs houses a dynamic climbing center in a bold example of adaptive reuse. The tall interior space lends itself to climbing walls amid Gothic arches and oak pews. Photography by Michael Cockram.

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Dear ArchitectureWeek,

St. Werburgh was a 6th-century princess- turned- abbess who is said to have abandoned the royal life to do good and to work to make others happy. Now her namesake church in Bristol, United Kingdom has found new life by evolving from its formal ecclesiastical function to serving Bristol's adventurous (and ascending) youth. The church's s soaring vertical nave has proved an unusual but effective space for a climbing center.

The 15th-century Gothic church originally stood in the center of Bristol, but as the city expanded in the late 1800s, the diocese moved the structure stone by stone and re-erected it in a suburb now called St. Werburghs. But by the late 20th century, the shrinking congregation could no longer support the large church.

Standing outside, you would never suspect what lies within. Walking through the door, you experience a sudden temporal shift as the faceted multicolored walls, speckled with amoebic handholds, shoot up and engulf much of the interior. History protrudes here and there, however, with Gothic arched arcades, stained glass windows, and elegant fan-vaulted ceilings forming an intriguing collage.

In leasing the building to the Bristol Climbing Centre, the diocese stipulated that the original elements not be damaged, so the building could revert to a church in the future. This careful approach led to some interesting juxtapositions wooden bridges span across upper ambulatories, and an ancient sarcophagus protrudes from a wall encased in glass. At times the blend is less than graceful, but the overall effect is a wonderfully dynamic time warp.

The project provides a good example of creative adaptive reuse with flexible thinking by church administrators and community leaders in saving a tremendous built resource while providing a dynamic place for Bristol's youth to play. The church has lost it lofty airs and perhaps in doing so it has manifested its namesake's altruistic intentions in a very real and novel way.

On the road in Bristol,
Michael Cockram

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