Gavin Stamp admires the richly allusive Chapel of Christ the Redeemer at Culham, designed by Craig Hamilton Architects
“Religion has been the soul of art from the beginning”, once wrote Alexander ‘Greek’ Thomson. “The form of the temple was not controlled by any utilitarian considerations”. These days, a Roman Catholic chapel would be an unusual commission for any architect, but Craig Hamilton has now completed two – one in the Borders, and one in Berkshire. Given the commitment to the classical language held by both this architect and his clients, precedents for such a building might seem to be many and obvious. In this second chapel, nevertheless, Hamilton has produced a building of subtle originality as well as an exemplar of the superb building craftsmanship it is still possible to obtain – if at a cost.
Craig Hamilton Architects was established in 1991 and is committed to producing “progressive classical and traditional architecture”. Given the somewhat disappointing history of the so-called New Classicists in Britain over the last four decades or so, with so many new country houses being merely pedantic reproductions of Palladian precedents, to aspire to being both progressive and traditional might seem oxymoronic. Hamilton’s work suggests otherwise. Properly, traditionally, trained in South Africa, he not only knows and understands the classical language but has wide and intelligent sympathies. He is familiar with the ancients and with the Renaissance, but also delights in Mannerism and has an impressive interest in and familiarity with nineteenth- and twentieth-century classicists, architects who could still invent and experiment: Schinkel, Cockerell, Thomson, Joass, Plećnik. This can be seen at the new chapel at Culham.
It was a commission – from the Culham Chapel Trust – not without difficulties. The first proposal, in 2008, was for a chapel to be built near the coach house of Culham Court, a Georgian red brick country house overlooking the Thames near Henley, but the National Trust (which has a covenant over the land) objected. An undistinguished modern house (once permitted by the NT) on a much better, elevated site in the eighteenth-century park was then bought, and it was eventually agreed that this could be replaced by the proposed chapel. The original brief was for a Roman Catholic chapel to seat 100. After negotiations, work started on a revised design seating some 76 people and is now complete – apart from much of the new sculpture intended for the interior.
The first impression is of a traditional building, a temple or basilica harmonious with the landscape and faced in carefully graded knapped flint in panels between areas of white Portland stone, with semi-circular Diocletian windows piercing the walls above. To the south-east, facing rising ground, is an apse; to the north-west, towards the river, the entrance portico. But even here, nothing is quite conventional. On one of the long side elevations is a door (to the baptistery) which is an exercise in Mannerism, after Hamilton’s expressive muse Michelangelo, with games being played with wall planes and elegant brackets, while the tetrastyle portico itself is most unusual. The order used is the Doric, from Cockerell’s favourite temple at Bassae, except that the two inner supports are left as plain piers between severe rectangular openings – as found in Egyptian architecture and in twentieth-century stripped-classical buildings.
The interior is a single vessel, covered by a coffered barrel vault of proper structural stone. It is dominated by a large white marble figure of Christ the Redeemer, a work by the Scottish Neoclassical sculptor Alexander Stoddart, who has often collaborated with the architect. Inspired by Danish sculptor Bertel Thorwaldsen (1770-1844), it is remarkable for depicting Christ seated. Elsewhere, more Mannerist games are played, with the side walls articulated by Bassae Ionic columns recessed or buried between rectangular framed niches, a treatment analogous to the way in which Michelangelo used the orders in his Laurentian Library.
What is also evident in this grand, richly furnished interior is the carving of stone panels and strips as if they are made of fabric with a hanging fringe. As Hamilton explains, “a unifying theme which is used throughout the building is that of the ‘cloth’ or ‘drape’ motif. Christianity abounds with references to fabrics, cloths and veils, et cetera”. It is surely also an allusion to his hero Joze Plečnik, who was influenced by the cladding theory of Gottfried Semper, that all architecture derives from framed structures hung with textiles.
There is also a lower crypt, reached by an elliptical stone staircase with a solid stone balustrade which is a triumph of geometry and precise stereotomy (the quality of the masonry and stone-carving throughout is deeply impressive). Here, first, is a small, intensely furnished and richly decorated Lady Chapel, beyond which stretches a mortuary chapel. Greek Doric columns of Ballinasloe stone support a low vault and divide the space into nave and aisles. The combination of grey and white evokes Florentine Renaissance architecture, in contrast to the richness of colour and texture upstairs. The furnishings, however – screens, altars and more – are all gilded and adorned with rich, stylised decoration, somewhat reminiscent of twentieth-century religious work by, say, Giles Gilbert Scott. Indeed, what is so very impressive about the whole chapel is Hamilton’s extraordinary facility in design, turning his hand to the organ case, to lamps, murals, furniture, vestments – even to special door handles (some with deer heads: Plečnik again) and basin taps in the luxurious vestries. Other artists involved include the Cardozo Kindersley Workshop, for incised lettering, and, of course, Alexander Stoddart, who has made several sculptures and reliefs and, one day, will make the life-size figures of the twelve apostles to fill the niches in the nave.
There is not space here to begin to do justice to the many felicities, to the variety of treatment, to the adaptations and invention displayed in the handling of the classical orders, in this sumptuous little building. Some criticism perhaps there should be. The clever trick of having the Doric columns at the corners of the portico, rather than within strong piers, in antis, possibly gives the whole composition a slight weakness. And the bell tower (more a bell-cote) which rises arbitrarily from the lead-covered low-pitched chapel roof, enlivened by a central Ionic column on each face (Choragic Monument of Thrassyllus, Greek Thomson) is perhaps too small.
But the point is that these elements can be evaluated in terms of formal language as well as of precedents, allowing the discussion of architecture to be a learned and intellectual affair. Craig Hamilton’s Culham Chapel demonstrates that classicism today can be resourceful, appropriate, and, in its own terms, truly original. It is a beautiful building.
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