Analysing architectural typology: a twin tale of a Floating Church and a Chapel as a home

A parallel look at two RIBA's annual Stephen Lawrence Prize shortlisted projects by London-based Craftworks and Denizen Works.

by Devanshi ShahPublished on : Nov 09, 2021

We often joke about the subculture of architectural vocabulary that pontificates on the deeper meaning of words with subtle differences. What's the difference between a surface and a plane? And does space define the difference? The architectural terminology of spaces is an important aspect of architectural discourse. Creating a distinction between an archway and an entranceway has a larger implication, especially when discussing the method of accessing a structure. Defining these spaces in association with the appropriate terminology helps define architectural typologies. Both modernism and postmodernism have looked at ways of reinterpreting space and spatial dogma, this is particularly evident with the increasing popularity of adaptive reuse of structures. The act of adaptive reuse is a very direct diversification of the architectural form that reinterprets our base understanding of structural typology. The impact and feasibility of this idea are particularly emphasised by the Pritzker Prize jury recognising Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal’s work in this area. Here we have two examples that present an interesting duality of reinterpreting the form and a version of adaptive reuse of the structure. We have a house that reinterprets a deconsecrated and derelict chapel as a home and another with the typology of the houseboat reinterpreted as a church. Both the projects were shortlisted for RIBA’s Stephen Lawrence Prize.

Exterior elevation of Chapel | Craftworks | Denizen Works | Chapel | Genesis | STIRworld
Exterior elevation of Chapel Image: Edmund Sumner

A pious home

Chapel by Craftworks relooks at the form of a derelict religious structure as a home. Craftworks relooked at the vocabulary of the building’s structural components such as the axis, narthex, vaults, and the nave, which are relooked as medieval hall houses, Victorian attic spaces, and long galleries. The architectural and interior design intervention brings to the foreground an interesting understanding of spatial archetypes; how does one distinguish a nave from a hall? Is it the scale, the form of the structure encompassing the space or is it the interior elements that define the space? The chapel structure as a contemporary home challenged the restrictive rectilinear plan to carefully negotiate habitual privacy and structural conservation.

  • View of Chapel with the below ground room and landscaping | Craftworks | Denizen Works | Chapel | Genesis | STIRworld
    View of Chapel with the below ground room and landscaping Image: Edmund Sumner
  • Fenestration and roof details | Craftworks | Denizen Works | Chapel | Genesis | STIRworld
    Fenestration and roof details Image: Edmund Sumner

The programme for a family house was strategically woven in the existing shell. This primarily involved the construction of a lower ground level for the sleeping quarters, a large ground floor living space that capitalises on the volume of the vaulted ceiling, with the presence of a mezzanine level inserted as a space for privacy and retreat within the living space. The materiality of the building has an inherent contradiction. The external brickwork is constructed with bricks reclaimed from the existing chapel and the roof slate is reclaimed from a locally demolished building. The inner volume features a pearly white finish with a waxed lime plaster and the floor is laid with extra-wide lengths of bleached Douglas Fir.

Interior view of the living space | Craftworks | Denizen Works | Chapel | Genesis | STIRworld
Interior view of the living space Image: Edmund Sumner

A floating church

Genesis, a new, wide-beam canal boat, was commissioned by the Diocese of London as a mobile assembly space, along the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. Designed by Denizen Works in close collaboration with Turks Shipyard and naval architect Tony Tucker, the barge converts the religious sanctum into a moveable entity. It also raises an interesting point regarding the spatial quality of a sacred space. Modern and contemporary churches do not necessarily feature elaborate frescos or high vaulted ceilings, yet they play with volume and light to create an emotive atmosphere that captures a sense of divinity. This is true for structure by Le Corbusier, and Tadao Ando. Denizen Works incorporated these elements with the use of a kinetic roof inspired by organ bellows.

The Floating Church docked at the canals | Craftworks | Denizen Works | Chapel | Genesis | STIRworld
The Floating Church docked at the canals Image: Gilbert McCarragher

The roof, which also features an oculus like element, is crafted from concertinaed, translucent sailcloth, and is lined with LED lights and powered by hydraulic rams. When fully raised, the roof will transform the internal volume of the barge. When in the compact position, the low height of the roof allows it to pass under bridges, while when expanded it acts as an illuminated beacon designed to capture attention. When seen amid other houseboats, the significance of the roof’s height is self-evident and is perhaps even comparable to the roofscape of churches that stand out among the skyline of cities.

The kinetic roof; exterior and interior view | Craftworks | Denizen Works | Chapel | Genesis | STIRworld
The kinetic roof; exterior and interior view Image: Gilbert McCarragher

Boarded midship, the main assembly space is on one side of the entrance with services such as the kitchen, office and toilet, towards the rear of the barge. The interior features light plywood walls and a green linoleum floor. Built-in benches provide seating and storage along the perimeter of the room and are fitted with marine-style bulkhead lights to create a calmer atmosphere. Some of the interior details of the church refer to the marine nature of its location. The altar, designed by Denizen Works, features an angled-front face that resembles the prow of a boat. The sail stitching used on the bellows is used as a motif throughout the design. It is prominently featured on several interior details, including aluminium screens on the windows, the pattern of the tiling in the kitchen, and even as the legs of customised furniture. The motif is repeated externally in a frieze painted by a local signwriter that wraps the face of the kinetic roof.

The sail stitch as a interior motif | Craftworks | Denizen Works | Chapel | Genesis | STIRworld
The sail stitch as a interior motif Image: Gilbert McCarragher

Churches have often served as a gathering space for the neighbouring community in addition to being a religious space. The barge is conceptualised to serve the same purpose. The interior is designed to be adaptable to accommodate a wide range of community activities and services, such as parent and toddler groups, interfaith celebrations, live music, employment training, support workshops and counselling. The programmatic transformation is conceived as a modern-day mission, intended to create a link with the growing communities living around the canal in East London.

Interior details of the Floating Church | Craftworks | Denizen Works | Chapel | Genesis | STIRworld
Interior details of the Floating Church Image: Gilbert McCarragher

We are reading the two structures together as an interesting case study on the evolving typologies of religious spaces, perhaps even questioning our collective assumptions of building type.

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