by Mrinmayee BhootSep 25, 2023
The recent transformation of the great forgotten 18th century Sheerness Dockyard Church is a testament to the fact that even our most battered and seemingly hopeless heritage vestiges are capable of a new life if there's a compelling vision behind it. Located in the Isle of Sheppey, Kent, the George Ledwell Taylor-designed neoclassical architecture constructed between 1826 and 1828 has been restored to its former glory by British architecture firm Hugh Broughton Architects. Meticulous conservation and the addition of new elements to the built form have unpacked the structure’s lost splendour and opened up its doors to serve as a refreshing public space.
The church survived two major fires—one in 1881 that saw a consequent rebuilding, but the other in 2001 fiercely gutted the structure leaving it roofless and abandoned for years. The Grade II listed church architecture is included in the English Heritage Register of Heritage at risk. It was constructed as part of the comprehensive master planning of the Sheerness Royal Navy Dockyard, a project that was led by naval architect John Rennie, of which the ensemble includes the surviving Naval and Officers’ Terraces, the Superintendent’s House, and Dockyard Gates. The church is positioned at the entrance of the dockyard, and its brick and stone envelope can be seen from the High Street of Sheerness. The imposing landmark has now been turned into a community centre and a co-working space.
The practice of London-based Hugh Broughton Architects is widely acknowledged for sensitive interventions in the heritage sector as well as for the designs of research stations in extreme locations. From the restoration of the century’s old Clifford Tower in York to the development of New Zealand’s research base in snowy Antarctica, the Bristish architects are continually innovating ways of tying our pasts with the future and living in challenging contexts. Hugh Broughton collaborated with conservation specialists Martin Ashley Architects on the Sheerness Church restoration which encompasses extensive repair work of the masonry exterior, reconstruction of the masonry clock tower, conserved and reproduced features within the interiors, and the making of a new roof.
On the exterior, in addition to the restored masonry walls, the design team has also added new parapets taking cues from Ledwell Taylor’s original 1828 design. Further, the disarrayed windows and doors have also been conserved, and new decorative iron railings have been added. A new slate and zinc-hipped roof tops the building’s shell. Four circular skylights lined centrally along the roof’s profile allow natural light to filter in the spaces below.
Inside, the decayed walls and plasterwork have been repaired to an extent that the surfaces now harmonise with the new program while the disfiguration caused by centuries of trauma remains visible. The walls are coated with a thick pale white distemper that accentuates the greyish palette of the roof truss, beams, columns, link bridges, and partition walls. The two-storey building features meeting rooms, an exhibition space, and a café on the ground floor, while the first floor has a co-working setup. On the ground floor, the tetrastyle ionic portico segues into a vestibule that leads to the main hall. Sections of wooden scale models depicting John Rennie’s master plan of the dockyard are exhibited in a glass box a few steps into the hall. Seen on the space’s right are meeting rooms veiled by partition walls made of a combination of clear and frosted glass and metal muntins, and on the left is an open café. Across the hall and lying before a clear nave is a stage designed for future events and community gatherings.
A striking feature of the space is the transformation of a broken stone stair into a stunning cantilevered one that has been fully rebuilt. Elsewhere, a series of sleek fluted cast iron columns conserved and redecorated by Hugh Broughton Architects stands out too. The flooring is redone with polished concrete, and its underfloor caters to the heating mechanism of the space. Dotting the floor area of the nave is a central aisle featuring the original stone tiles of the church, adding a robust contrast to the shiny concrete surface. Inwardly, the roof is clad with slatted timber that conceals the insulation and allows better acoustics for the interiors. A little below, connecting wall to wall, flitch timber trusses sweeps the entire space creating an arresting grid appearing seemingly hovered in the air. Track-mounted light fittings are laid along the beams creating directional illumination for the space in the evenings, as windows and skylights keep abundant daylight in.
New railings and a link bridge wade along the open seating of the upper-story co-working space. Arched glass windows that run along the complete length of the church’s enclosing wall flank the seating space and keep it naturally lit. This floor is designed such that the people sitting on the upper floor can easily view the activities below and that the flexible arrangement could be adapted to new configurations, as and when the need arises.
Speaking about the key intent behind the project, Hugh Broughton said, “The reinvigorated building will provide a focus for young entrepreneurs in Sheerness and a place for the local community to learn about the history of the dockyard. The founder of the British practice behind the design added that the sympathetic way in which the conservation and new additions have been done to the structure has brought a new life to the abandoned site. Referred to as a ‘once-in-a-lifetime regeneration project’ and ‘a much-anticipated phoenix of a restoration project’, the £9.5m church’s new avatar has been channelled through the efforts of the Sheerness Dockyard Preservation Trust, a £5.2m grant from The National Lottery Heritage Fund with match-funding from Historic England and numerous supporters.