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News Analysis — Ugliness and Anglican architecture

 The Lambeth Palace Library is the natural architectural expression of the modern Church of England. Tedious, tired, and tasteless.

World Architecture News reports the Church Commissioners of the Church of England have commissioned a new library for Lambeth Palace. The commission was awarded to Wright & Wright Architects, the winners of a design competition to build the first new structure on the grounds of Lambeth Palace in 180 years.

The news report focuses on the functionality of the new structure, but is silent as to its aesthetic qualities.

Clad in red clay brick, the design will pay homage to the surrounding historical Palace buildings. The building takes the form of an occupied wall which rises to a compact eight storey tower. The archives are elevated about any potential flooding and the building forms a bulwark, which screens this part of the garden from pollution and traffic noise, whilst also enclosing a pond. Thus the ecology of the garden will be greatly enhanced. At the top of the library tower, a multi-functional public viewing space is created, allowing direct views across the river Thames to the Palace of Westminster, reinforcing the historic connection between church and state.

Inside the building the public reading room is naturally lit, through a filigree screen of trees and has tranquil views across the historic gardens. Facilities will include state of the art archival systems that will allow ongoing conservation and storage of this unique collection of archives.

Archbishop Justin Welby is quoted as saying:

“[T]he plans for the new Lambeth Palace Library are exciting. They enable us to preserve this important national collection while increasing accessibility, within a building that is a fitting architectural addition to the grounds and surrounding area.”

One of the judges of the competition, Rowan Moore, offered an ideological appraisal of the look of the building. “Wright and Wright’s approach shows a high degree of sensitivity to the Library’s precious contents and location, while also giving it a confident new public expression.”

So far so good — from what has been written a new library to house an important collection of books and papers going back to the Ninth century is a “good thing”. I have undertaken research at the Library and applaud the church for its decisions to build a new facility.

Yet looking at the picture of the proposed building leaves me cold. Writing from Florida, I know what bad Protestant church architecture looks like. (Catholic modern architecture is awful in a different way).

Post-war American church architecture (in Florida at any rate) is a horrid thing, combing the worst forms of modernism with gimcrack construction. Where the congregation had money, the result was palaces of culture built in the high-Mussolini style, a grandiose neo-classicism beloved by Albert Speer marked by high pillars and low ceilings and sanctuaries that can be turned into basketball courts by rearranging the chairs.

Most Florida churches, however, combine cheap construction with insipid design. There are exceptions, the new sanctuary at Trinity Vero Beach is one. However, if you ever wondered what sort of buildings Mike Brady designed (the architect father in the television series the “Brady Bunch”, come on down and see. 

Yet the modern taste in tacky architecture can be viewed in a different light. Shoddy buildings are often mirrors of the soul of  the congregations, reflecting “worship experiences” — the cheap entertainment of cheap grace.

English post-war architecture is ugly in a different way than Florida architecture. I have been to Walsall, I know. (It receives my vote for the ugliest town in the UK.) The Lambeth Palace Library exterior (plans for the interior were not published in the story) is ugly in the best British traditions of the past fifty years. Resembling a multi-story car park, or a downtown shopping mall it’s look flows from the Brutalism beloved by town planners in the 1960’s and 1970s. But while the welfare state built, in Michael J. Lewis’ phrase, “colossal, pitiless, and distressingly permanent” piles, (the University of Kent in Canterbury — home to the Lambeth Conferences — comes to mind), the Church Commissioners have commissioned an excruciatingly boring pile.

Yet, the Church Commissioners’ selection of the Wright & Wright slab may have a deeper wisdom. The Lambeth Palace Library is the natural architectural expression of the modern Church of England. Tedious, tired, tasteless — standing for nothing other than the perpetuation of the institution. I does not have to be this way.


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