Opposite Warwick Avenue tube station is a striking 50-year old modernist church that replaced an older Victorian gothic church on the site in the 1970s.
Unlike most Victorian churches that were replaced with modern buildings, this wasn’t a result of the old one being damaged by war, but simply that the old church was far too large for a shrinking congregation.
The old church has been built in the 1850s, and consecrated in April 1856 was a classic Victorian church, built from Kentish ragstone to a design by Thomas Little architects. A tall square tower sat at one end of the church, with a long nave, and side aisles. It was a decent enough church, but very much appeared externally the same as any other church going up at the time.
Internally, it was a bit more radical, as the columns that usually run down either side of the church seating to hold up the roof had been done away with, creating a much more open space within. That allowed the church to seat 1,700 people, with 500 seats reserved for free for the poor.
At the time, it was known as St Saviour Warwick Road, as what is today the Avenue was at the time the Road, but the road became an avenue not long after it opened.
By the 1960s though, St Saviour Warwick Road was too large for the declining congregation, and with mounting costs to look after the old building, a warning was sent in 1965, just before Christmas of all times, that if something wasn’t done, then the church may have to close entirely.
After some very heated debates — including the matter being raised in the House of Lords, and an Act of Parliament being passed, it was decided that the cost of repairs and maintaining the old building was too great, and they would build a new smaller church on the same plot of land, reserving some land at the rear for flats to be sold to help fund the work. So, in 1972, work started on demolishing the old church and replacing it with the current building, with the new church, St Saviour’s, Warwick Avenue opening in 1976.
There had been calls by the local community group to retain the Victorian tower, but that was (wisely) ignored in favour of total clearance and replacement with the modern church. However, they retained the tower, as it was felt important as a local landmark. While it looks possibly steel or weathered copper, the spire is actually made from fibreglass, at the time a still fairly unusual material to use in a building. And at 165 feet tall, the steeple is taller than the old church tower, and a far more imposing landmark for the area.
At the consecration, the vicar, the Rev O’Brien Hamilton said: “There are those who do not admire contemporary att and architecture in public buildings and who are not so fond of the new church as the former building”
“On the other hand we have to express our astonishment at the large numbers who are loud in their praises, so we are greatly encouraged”.
He cited a big advantage of the new church that while the old one “ate money like a large old card eats petrol”, the new building was generating an income from the flats that were built behind it.
At the same event, the Bishop of London noted that congregations often struggle to look after churches made from Kentish Rag, as it has “an unfortunate habit of returning after 100 years to the sand from whence it came”.
The new church, by Biscoe and Stanton architects, is a modern masterpiece.
Not that it’s immediately obvious from the entrance — the church is far more impressive seen from the tube station side with the tall spire supported by long thin brick columns. However, the entrance is easy to overlook, being up some steps and a small wooden door around the side. All under a covered space held up by slabs of concrete that reminded me of plasticine strips. Feels very 1970s council housing so far.
Inside though is much more impressive as the gloomy entrance is replaced with a bright open space that’s more in the round than older churches tend to be. That’s thanks to the 1970s fashion for hexagons, and the church is indeed a hexagon in shape.
There’s little in the way of stained glass in the church, and although they had planned to add a lot more later when money was available, the only piece that’s been added was in 1985, a window depicting the Seven Sacraments. It was created by John Hayward and unveiled by HRH Princess Alexandra.
Do pay attention to the pews, which are a delight of modern furniture design.
There are some Stations of the Cross on the walls, but apart from the necessary additions for the church to function, the walls have been left unadorned, in their bricky brutalist state. Most of the light comes in from above, as they’ve cleverly mounted the flat ceiling on a tall band of glass that runs all the way around the hexagonal space.
When I popped in, there was a meeting being held in a corner, but they were quite happy for me to wander around. And I suggest you do as well when in the area.
This article was published on ianVisits
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