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Saturday, 16 January 2016

Legal Aesthetics and the Architectural Ambiguities of St Stephen Walbrook

In this Research Seminar at the Courtauld Institute, Timothy Hyde addressed the theme of incongruity in modern architecture through examination of the installation of an altar sculpted by Henry Moore in 1972 into St Stephen Walbrook, a church designed by Christopher Wren in 1672.

Hyde began by noting a coexistence of eras in this installation with connections between the moments of rebuilding inherent in the 1960s and post-Great Fire of London. Neo-classical services had the pulpit as the focal point ensuring that those in box pews could see and hear the preacher, while the altar was smaller and less visible. By 1967, when the idea of a new stone altar began to emerge at St Stephen Walbrook, celebrations of Communion had become more frequent, the box pews had been replaced as part of the erosion of class privilege and the socially engaged Rector, Chad Varah, asked Henry Moore to forget all altars he had seen previously and think in terms of the primitive, rough-hewn altars of the Old Testament. In line with an increased sense of spatial and emotional proximities, it was proposed that a circular altar be centrally placed under Wren's dome.

There was no formal opposition to the altar at the beginning of the faculty process but, as the City and parish has few residents, the Archbishop registered an objection in order that the case be heard by the London Consistory Court. There, the arguments revolved around aesthetic and theological issues. Debate included the effect on Wren's severely geometrical design of introducing a form that was tactile and indeterminate. The resulting focus on the dome and the square within which it is set could also represss the longitudinal axis of Wren's design. These are debates regarding congruence and how it is defined and assessed. This debate saw similar aesthetic arguments made to those used at about the same time in relation to the extension to the National Gallery and the construction of both Lloyds of London and No. 1 Poultry.  

At the Consistory Court, however, it was theological issues that proved definitive. These concerned the definition of an altar in regard to the Canons of the Church of England and a precedent set in relation to a restoration of the Ecclesiological Society of the Round Church in Cambridge in 1845. There a fixed stone altar had been introduced as part of a restoration looking back to the original Romanesque design of the church. However, the Canons, based as they were on the theology of the Reformers, said that communion should be celebrated from a table not an altar, as Communion is a remembering, not a repeat, of Christ's sacrifice. The precedent set through the case of the Round Church was that a table, while it could be of stone, could not be fixed without becoming an altar. At the Consistory Court hearing Chancellor GH Newsom QC ruled that the Moore sculpture was an altar not a table and therefore was not congruent with the Canons. In doing so, he also established that uniformity of architecture cannot be given precedence over theological or doctrinal issues within the Church of England.

An appeal was then able to be made to the Court of Ecclesiastical Causes Reserved because the judgement had turned on a doctrinal issue. This Court was not bound by earlier precedents and could consider issue afresh. This Court preferred a broader definition of table to that used by the Chancellor and on this basis agreed that the altar could be installed. Their decision and debates in arriving at that decision were symptomatic of post-modern awareness of the ambiguities of language. The Consistory Court decision was compatible with the thinking of late modernity, while that of the Court of Ecclesiastical Causes Reserved was consistent with post-modern ideas.

The implications of this installation tested and exceeded conventional frameworks of explication such as intentionality or style, and in so doing opened a view onto intricate exchanges between otherwise incommensurable registers of judgment. Unfolding the complicated legal and aesthetic history of this particular architectural, sculptural, and theological act suggested possibilities for considering facets of architectural postmodernity outside of the disciplinary frameworks of architecture itself.


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