Last Saturday we headed out for Open House Weekend. For those unfamiliar with the concept, every year a selection of London’s buildings are opened up to the public, to visit for free. It is opportunity to visit venues that usually charge an entrance fee, or a little more intriguingly, visit places that aren’t usually open for the public to just wander around.
We decided to forego the more glamorous or more well-known locations and head for places near to where we live. It was an opportunity to explore the sorts of venues we pass all the time but had never explored, plus we’d left it a little late to head into Central London as I had led us on an unfortunately protracted tankard-engraving adventure.1
Venue one was a 1930s cinema, closed for about ten years and, in the main, converted into flats. We were hoping to get into the remaining lobby of the cinema, but this was off-limits. Instead, we just got to see the residents’ garden, in what was the auditorium of the cinema. There was a nice touch in that one wall had a giant Gone With The Wind-styled mural, and the front of the cinema is (hopefully) to be redeveloped into a smaller art cinema with restaurant, so all is not lost.
We then made a couple of ecclesiastical visits, because what better way to spend a sunny Saturday afternoon than wandering around old churches?
The first was one of the first modernist churches to be built in London. From the outside it was a hulking, intimidating beast. Inside it was stark, but incredibly striking. The poured concrete ceiling glistened from the crushed lemonade bottles that had been mixed in. The thin, abstract, stained glass reached up to the incredibly tall ceiling. A giant cross hung above, a tall concrete Christ looked on. It was a bare, yet awe-inspiring place.
An incredibly friendly guide talked us through the history of the building. The architects had wanted the church to resemble the factories the parishioners in the nearby estate worked in. Our guide pointed out that if you’d been stuck in a factory all week, the last thing you wanted to do on a Sunday was go to a church that looked like a factory too. He had a point, but it was still a wonderful building.
We then headed to an early Victorian church. It was far grander inside, covered in multiple frescos, flanked by all manner of stained glass scenes. There was gold everywhere. It was impressive, but it didn’t feel anywhere near as spiritual (for want of a better word) as the previous church. The ornate nature of the place was distancing somehow. The variety of imagery throughout the church was a bit of an assault on the senses. It didn’t feel contemplative.
Comparing the two churches it was interesting that the more traditional church felt colder, less welcoming, somehow less Godly, than the modernist, concrete church. I think it is easy to think of modern(ist) works as being distant, obtuse, elitist. Yet, here was quite the opposite. A building that delivered its purpose in a different, yet incredibly effective way. It was a compelling space.
I’ve been reading a bit of modernist-ish literature of late and have been struck by how warm it can be, that just because it doesn’t follow conventions doesn’t mean it fails to connect on a human level. It is not just an academic exercise. I think on Saturday I saw this through architecture, albeit very much from a layman’s perspective. There was soul in that concrete, or something.
1. I’d report on this, but I doubt you could take the excitement. I will mention, however, that the engraving shop did offer for sale a silver condom holder, quite possibly the classiest gift I’ve ever seen. I have no idea what you would engrave on it though. Answers on a postcard…
I’m a lapsed Catholic, but I can’t help but admire the huge and ornate older churches’ ornate stained glass windows, apses, and paintings. I love how huge and intricate they are. The architecture isn’t at all utilitarian; the level of detail that went into these older churches hints at devotion and belief that borders on madness. The Southwestern churches are a bit scaled back, but they do a brilliant job of fusing Catholic tradition with local customs in a way that feels timeless to me.
The stateside post-Vatican II Catholic churches always feel wrong to me somehow. This was about the time the rest of US culture became a little more buttoned-down, so it feels like newer churches are trying too hard to fit in with the rest of the office on casual Fridays.
And you should see some of the Mormon temples too. They’re huge enough to dwarf the rest of a neighborhood, and the snow white exteriors make them appear that much more imposing.