Thursday, 1 April 2010

Church extensions

There is sometimes tension between the missionary and pastoral function of a church, on the one hand, and on the other its status as an historic building worthy of preservation. More and more, those who run churches want flexible space, community facilities, kitchens and loos. Installed in reaction to dwindling congregations, these are effectively secular spaces, functionally akin to village halls. Movable chairs are preferred to fixed pews and aisles and galleries are screened off to allow different activities to go on at the same time. Where internal space constraints cannot be overcome, or the building is too historically sensitive to be altered, the solution is sometimes an external extension. 

None of these changes is beneficial from the historic buildings perspective and where possible we try to steer parishes towards reversible, low-impact interventions. It is often a fine line. Extensions may well minimise damage to historic fabric (although there's generally a physical join to the host church somewhere) but the price is often a visually jarring and intrusive intervention. A classic recent example is this brick extension to St Mary and St Luke in Shareshill, Staffordshire, built to provide 'an accessible meeting place', a disabled loo and a lift to the church gallery. The upper storey serves as a vestry room and further meeting space. We fought the scheme all the way up to Consistory Court, but regrettably permission was given, with the results evident from the photograph, which shows the overpowering effect of the extension on the 1742 church with its sixteenth century tower. In a secular age churches do need to adapt, and parishes have an awesome (and unsought) responsibility as guardians of historic fabric, but the design of major alterations, where they are proved to be necessary, needs to be significantly higher than that shown here. (On the plus side, a full set of eighteenth century box pews, with waist-high wainscotting, survives inside the church itself).  

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