Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
No crying needed for this chapel
Our CBD churches, like hospitals, are going to the highest bidder. However, the Scots Church redesign makes a fair job of wedding the residential and the religious, writes Elizabeth Farrelly.
God and mammon, however much we puritans deplore, have long enjoyed a fruitful if troubled relationship in the corpus of the Christian church. It’s just more obvious now, with Sydney’s churches succumbing serially to rampant real-estatism, forced either to cohabit with commerce or be engulfed in the furious stampede.
On Sydney’s Church Hill, for instance, both Scots Church and the neighbouring St Patrick’s have lately chosen to site-share with major residential development. For St Pat’s it is a towering adjacency, for Scots, elaborate commercial headwear leaving only St Philip’s unsullied. Meanwhile, the little Chalmers Street Presbyterian Church, until recently the temporary home for Scots, follows many of its confreres in yielding to total immersion.
Does it matter, in these godless times, if churches-as-churches disappear from our cities? Well, yes, frankly. Wherever you sit along the prophet-to-pedophile spectrum of views on Christianity, you have to admit it has excelled in the exhilarant-arts department, particularly the churches themselves. But, as congregations dwindle and even the semblance of established religion vanishes, churches, like hospitals, go to the highest bidder.
And while the simple street-presence of church-as-church can reassure even your committed heathen that non-dollar values still exist, this is a role that church-as-ad agency, say, may find hard to replicate.
Of course, Sydney never had London’s fabled collection to weep for. But we do have a number of fine sandstone houses of God, many of them by Blacket. And they’re listed, mostly. Increasingly, however, “For sale” signs obscure their carved lancet windows and dog-tooth doors.
Chalmers Street Presbyterian, 1856, is the latest victim. The only surviving private work of GPO architect James Barnet, it is zoned multi-use (read, whatever) and at auction next week is expected to yield ” more than one and a half”. Million.
While it may not be Barnet’s most spectacular achievement, its squat-cruciform plan with gabled galleries on three sides makes it unusual and endearing, if a tad worldly. Its mere sandstone persistence, in a street otherwise dominated by buses, Meriton and trade unions, is a delight.
It has harboured the Scots congregation since its 1998 eviction from Church Hill, as the home-church’s disrepair progressed from romantic to dangerous. After decades of attempted redevelopment, something is happening. Nick of time, judging by the state of the stone.
Winning the Scots job presented architects Tonkin Zulaikha Greer (TZG in association with Jackson Teece Chesterman and Willis) with some curly problems.
Demolition of the century-old Scots Church in 1926 to make way for the Harbour Bridge approaches had produced only meagre compensation, making site-sharing the only reasonable option. There were precedents. New York’s 1920s skyscraper churches had mixed gymnasiums, sports clubs and commercial offices with worship-space, in a single church building, using Gothic verticality to disguise the tower and impose visual unity.
Rosenthal, Rutlidge and Beattie’s new 1930 Scots Church took this idea and exploited the 150 foot (46 metre) limit to the full; proposing four slender 10-storey office towers, separated by regulation light-and-air slots, above a large ovoid, assembly hall. The hall, double-height and building-wide over both ground levels, had to be column-free. Tricky business, structurally speaking.
Achieved it was, and the steel skeleton duly clothed in carved Gothic virtue. Everything looked rosy until the Depression halted construction, truncating the 12-storey dream at six. So, when, 60 years on, the wind changed, this half-built, pseudo-Gothic, quasi-stone functionally hybrid Scots Church found itself frozen as a Schedule 1 heritage item.
TZG’s dilemma, then, was whether stacking mammon over God and heritage God, a double whammy was a bad thing, it being a church. Or a good thing, in fulfilling that church’s original intent. The archi-ethics may be murky but the commercial imperative was clear and, from the church’s point of view, compelling. The more you wring from the asset the more you can spend on the needy.
Even assuming you proceed on this basis, though, there’s the how question. How, technically, is tricky enough, with massive storey-high transfer beams, spanning the great hall, tearing through apartments-to-be and parking stuffed into a 12-layer underground robotic stacker crammed within the structure-free footprint of the hall itself.
But how, stylistically, should one build atop a listed building always committed to visual fraud, disguising steel as stone, commerce as religion, new as old? How might a disciple of authenticity approach such a problem? Especially as there’s no room for setbacks from the existing fabric.
Here, as at Custom House, TZG chose the unabashed contemporary approach, dramatising the new-old junction with a deep, horizontal recess and assiduously matching the zinc, steel and glass facade to the rhythms, but not the detail, of the existing. Stepping steeply from south to north in response to Wynyard Park sun-planes, the new building mimics the four-tower original, and ghosts-in the historic 46m limit with a subtle tidemark in the zinc.
The church will be reinstated, on a buyback clause for its stratum, in the great hall, which, at 1200 seats, is hugely oversized but virtually impossible to adapt for anything else. It will also regain its ceremonial Margaret Street entrance, by far the building’s finest aspect, plus corner chapel, office space and shopfront.
Snuggled into the old building, with separate entrances (on Jamison and York streets), will be 55 private apartments, beneath a further 93 in the new levels. While the old apartments enjoy fancy windows, higher ceilings and occasional in-turret studios, subtly abstracted memories of the old will flavour lobbies, lifts, stairways and corridors throughout.
The apartments are two-storeyed, allowing a double-height winter garden space instead of the standard balcony. As well as bestowing generosity on an otherwise tightish space, this establishes a respectful distance between old fabric and new, enhances daylight penetration and, with deft grillage, encourages breezes into the apartments’ most intimate crannies.
So you can keep your puritanism. Scots-the-building is on its last legs. Without mammon the church would be forced from town and the building would rot. After so many schemes have foundered on heritage constraints, we should pray this one runs to completion. Then, at least, the church can reinhabit the site chosen by its radical founder John Dunmore Lang, however (one imagines) he may have reviled its commercial exoskeleton.
ILLUS: How should one build atop an edifice already committed to visual fraud, disguising steel as stone, commerce as God, new as old?
At left is the TZG solution, above, its starting point.