This is the first in a series of interviews on the theme “Beauty ever ancient, ever new” - on all the artists and craftspeople involved in the interior church refurbishment - the first phase of the Regeneration Project.
Roz Barr is the architect for the Regeneration Project in Hammersmith, London.
About the Regeneration Project:
St Augustine’s church was built in 1916 and has seen a number of minor refurbishments over the past 100 years. It was last upgraded in the 1970s.
Our Parish in Hammersmith is at the very centre and source of the renewal of the Order of St Augustine (O.S.A) in the UK. The Regeneration Project is being undertaken to ensure that our church and its site are fit for purpose for future generations.
The first phase of the Project has focused on the refurbishment of the church building. We have sought to create an uplifting and welcoming space for prayer and worship. The second phase will take into account the remainder of the site. We will be redeveloping the Centre to offer a variety of services to our parish and local community.
Our plans are rooted in the vision of a world where there is greater understanding, love and unity between all people, regardless of background or belief.
Roz Barr (RB): I wish we were in the Confessional right now. *laughs*
AUSTIN FORUM (AF): TELL ME HOW YOU BECAME AN ARCHITECT. HOW DID YOU FIND YOUR VOCATION?
RB: I always had an interest in the arts and wanted to go to art school. Architecture didn’t come to me till later. I was interested in sculpture. I guess I was aware of architecture.
Initially, I studied interior design at Glasgow School of Art : a brilliant course. I was very lucky because it was very architectural. I was painting, … There were just different disciplines.
AF: WHAT’S YOUR STORY?
RB: From there, I won a competition at the Royal Society of Arts in the form of a travel bursary and I then went to the United States.
This led to work for a Danish architect in Vancouver who had a really lovely studio with mixed disciplines of architecture including textile designers, graphic designers … That had a big influence on me and my approach to collaboration.
Following that, I went to Manchester School of Art and did an MA in Interior Design at its architectural school, where I was very much influenced by an architect called Joe Jessop.
After a spell in Hong-Kong, I landed in London in the mid-90s to study at the Architectural Association. I dropped out of the course and went then to the Bartlett School of Architecture, the University College of London, which at the time was the place to be.
"One of the skills of an architect is in collaborating. You’re not able to construct a building on your own, you’re always part of a team, even when you’re leading."
AF: WHAT IS THE VOCATION OF AN ARCHITECT?
RB: I would advise students considering architecture as a career to remember that one’s vocational journey is unlikely to be as straightforward as one might have thought at the outset.
One of the skills of an architect is in collaborating. You’re not able to construct a building on your own, you’re always part of a team, even when you’re leading.
AF: HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE YOUR WORK?
RB: My work is very contextual. It’s a driver for how I approach projects. I find the context where projects are set and that context is hugely important. It starts to tell a story about how you form the project.
A lot of people say I’m very craft-based or oriented. The process of making is very important to me. It’s not an end-result but a constant thinking and testing of ideas. We use lots of model making, maquettes at the practice as a tool for developing ideas. I don’t think I work any differently from any other architect. But I do think the emphasis on making is hugely appropriate in architecture.
Working with material, understanding the limitation of material, how you can transform a space or an environment through that understanding is something I find fascinating.
AF: TELL ME MORE ABOUT ONE OF THE MOST SIGNIFICANT PROJECTS IN YOUR CAREER. IT CAN BE WELL-KNOWN OR A MORE INTIMATE WORK.
RB: They are all very important if I’m honest. You never stop learning as an architect.
I’ve been fortunate to have worked on significant projects for the National Portrait Gallery, when I finished my studies. I worked for the architect who worked on that. It was fascinating to work on a public building in the heart of London, making decision as part of a team on a listed building.
The Holburne Museum in Bath which I did whilst I was at Eric Parry was my most personal project because it was very difficult to have a contemporary building constructed in Bath at that time. It took a lot of managing to convince people that what we were doing was appropriate.
And again, it was working with a material, ceramic, in a way which had never been done before, while working with a local manufacturer,...
AF: WHAT ARE YOUR CURRENT PROJECTS? WHAT DO YOU HOPE TO DO IN THE FUTURE?
RB: We’re working on two other significant projects at very early stages. Both are public buildings. It’s something I’m very interested in.
One is the Building Centre. It was established in the 1930s as a place of innovation for architects, engineers, students. We’re reimagining the building centre for the twenty-first century. We’re refurbishing the current exhibition spaces. It’s a sort of inhabited display case.
The other one is Bishopsgate Library. A significant piece by Charles Townsend, the architect of Whitechapel Gallery. It’s in the City of London, behind Liverpool Street. It was set-up by the rich of the City who wanted to give back to the poor of the East End (currently Spitafields). It became a theatre, a concert hall and a library.
The building has gone through many stages of restoration and adaptation over the years. We’re only looking at the restoration of the library at present, but it would be wonderful if we could look how the rest of the Institute could be restored and adapted again for the twenty-first century.
How to restore heritage while thinking forward is something I find interesting. Not rebuilding nor adding to existing buildings.
In this country, we are very aware of heritage, not knocking down and starting again, but keeping the best of the best, similar to what we are doing here.
"It will become a marker for the city. Which reflects the philosophy of St Augustine."
AF: HOW DID YOU HEAR ABOUT THE REGENERATION PROJECT? WHY DID YOU DECIDE TO GET INVOLVED?
RB: I first met Fr Gianni in 2008 whilst I was working at another practice. That’s when I first became aware of Saint Augustine’s.
I had lived nearby but had not really noticed the church. We talked about the possibilities for the site.
Fr Gianni then left for Edinburgh and I left to set up my own practice.
In 2012, we started a new conversation. How could the site be used? It has been a fantastic journey so far. What attracted me to the project is exactly what I’ve just talked about.
It was an outreach project.
The Regeneration Project will have an impact not only on the congregation of St Augustine’s but also on the rest of the area. It will become a marker for the city. Which reflects the philosophy of St Augustine.
We worked hard with Fr Gianni to think about the place of the church in the development. The church being the centre of the project. It’s something fundamental in the design I’ve developed.
AF: WHERE DID YOU GET YOUR INSPIRATION FOR THE REGENERATION PROJECT?
RB: Again, the work is quite contextual. It’s really about being aware of what is around us, looking at how the church sits. The church itself is not at right angles to Fulham Palace Road. It doesn’t present itself to the passerby.
The original chapel was made from tin and was called the “tin cathedral”. This resonated with me.
It was a spiritual home, which was very much loved and where people came to worship.
It was like a strong veil, a protection in what was a hard urban context. Pollution and noise are still a hazard. I wanted to express the memory of that tin chapel. Hence the cast iron tower we’re proposing for the site in the second part of the Regeneration Project.
AF: WHAT IS YOUR SCHEDULE FOR THE REGENERATION PROJECT?
RB: We’ve phased the Regeneration Project because of the size and because it’s a working building. The programming of the work had to be carefully thought through. Also, budget constraints mean that we need to ensure funding is in place before we proceed.
AF: WHAT WERE YOU TRYING TO ACHIEVE FOR THE FIRST PHASE?
RB: I have a real sense of optimism about the church. We wanted to create a brighter, more uplifting spatial experience. From its early days, it was a beautiful structure but the timber on the roof had been painted dark brown, the walls were painted all different colours, and the stone columns were covered in paint.
It was my thinking to strip everything back to its natural and original materiality.
It’s not about covering things up. It’s about bringing things back. There is a real honesty about the project.
There is a respect for how the church has been adapted over the last 100 years.
We’ve taken the green marble from the wall and this will now be part of the sanctuary floor.
We’ve worked on new services by Richie Daphen, for example a new heating system (the first of its kind in Britain) which uses copper piping embedded in the walls of the church.
It has been fantastic to get feedback from the Order on the liturgical use of the church.
We’re also very engaged with St Augustine’s parish on “what is a public room?”.
How well loved this place is !
Because the door is open, Mass attendance on Sundays reflects the diverse community of nationalities and ages which make up the parish. It’s a rare and unique opportunity. I don’t think there is a greater example than what we have in Hammersmith.
AF: WHAT ARE YOU TRYING TO ACHIEVE WITH THE CHANGES TO THE CHURCH BUILDING? ARE YOU TRYING TO ELICIT A PARTICULAR RESPONSE TO YOUR DESIGN? DOES FORM, MATERIAL, AND COLOUR, … HELP US TO FEEL SOMETHING SPECIAL? HOW IS IT AN INVITATION TO PRAYER/SPIRITUAL REFLECTION? HOW WILL IT HELP US GET A SENSE OF THE SACRED?
RB: For St Augustine’s, there was a feeling of bringing a sense of honesty. A purity I hope will come through in the refurbished church to allow people to reflect, to feel peace. We are not adding to what is already there. By taking away, we give back more. It’s something rare for an architect. `we are usually adding layers to enhance a space.
Here it’s by washing away that you see the real church. It’s freeing the space.
"We all have a need for a spiritual belief at times in our life."
AF: NOW, LET’S SPEAK ABOUT YOUR SPIRITUALITY. WHAT DID YOU FEEL WHILE WORKING ON THE PROJECT?
RB: I am a spiritual person. I have a belief. Maybe not in a conventional religious setting but I have come to value this place of worship.
We all have a need for a spiritual belief at times in our life.
Seeing the joy that this brings to those who come to worship here. It’s always a great reward for me.
"I’ve worked on other churches - that feeling of Beyond is very powerful. I believe that these spaces can help you transcend every-day reality."
AF: “UPLIFTING. EMOTIONS. FREEING SOMEONE’S MIND.” IT’S INTERESTING WHEN YOU SPEAK ABOUT AN EMOTIONAL RESPONSE TO A PHYSICAL SPACE. COULD IT BE MORE THAN AN EMOTIONAL RESPONSE? COULD IT BE A TRANSCENDENT EXPERIENCE?
RB: Yes. It’s unique to each person - something within their gut. It’s not an emotion that can be articulated.
You get an emotional impulse from some spaces. In churches, you feel balanced.
I’ve worked on other churches - that feeling of Beyond is very powerful. I believe that these spaces can help you transcend every-day reality.
AF: COLOUR IS VERY IMPORTANT TO YOU TOO.
RB: We’ve evolved to white minimalist, which has a purity to it.
How we use colour is important. It can be uplifting, or calming. We should embrace colours.
"What is Beauty? It’s a seductive quality. Some places make you feel balanced, make you willing to be silent."
AF: HOW WOULD YOU LINK YOUR WORK TO THE TRANSCENDENTAL PHILOSOPHICAL CONCEPTS OF BEAUTY AND GOODNESS? CAN YOU RELATE TO JOHN-PAUL II’S IDEA: “ THE POWER OF THE GOOD HAS TAKEN REFUGE IN THE NATURE OF THE BEAUTIFUL”?
RB: What is Beauty? It’s a seductive quality. Some places make you feel balanced, make you willing to be silent.
Also, in a church, you’re always looking forward and hopefully feel uplifted.
AF: WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS ABOUT SACRED ART? DOES IT HAVE A FUTURE?
RB: We’re not building as many churches. History has bequeathed to us a sacred art, which was a medium to express spirituality and beliefs of a particular time.
There are few good examples of contemporary sacred art. This project provides the opportunity to remedy that.
Altar, tabernacle, paintings. It’s looking with fresh eyes at elements of the church interior.
AF: WE HAVE THE EYES OF FAITH. YOU HAVE THE EYES OF AN ARCHITECT.
RB: The dialogue is so important. You need to understand how the church was made in order to develop it for the future.
You need also to think of where it was 100 years ago, and where it will be 100 years from now.
AF: DO YOU HAVE AN OBSERVATION FOR AUSTIN FORUM: OUR “CHURCH WITHOUT WALLS”?
RB: This Regeneration Project is about providing a greater community resource and help Austin Forum take its Mission further.
Are there other AFs in the world?
AF: IT’S THE FIRST PROJECT. WE’RE CREATING A LANDMARK.
- Church reopening date: Sunday 10 December
- Link to architect’s biography - www.rozbarr.com/about
*a special thanks to Laurent, from Lepetitjournal.com/London Mag and to Hugh, ex-publisher at The Tablets for helping Austin Forum in the production of the interview.