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Personal Column : Hawksmoor’s Christ Church Spitalfields


by Richard MacCormac

This essay first appeared in Columns : newsletter of the Friends of Christ Church Spitalfields, Summer 2001

Walking past ChristChurch, as I have done daily for many years, has not made Hawksmoor’s masterwork familiar to me. Its great architectural gestures retain their strange potency and continue to astonish and invite my curiosity. To suddenly be faced with the vast unadorned white flank, with its deeply cut round windows above the double arches of the aisle, blocking the south end of Wilkes Street is so surprising that you might be in Rome or in the Rimini of Alberti’s Tempio Malatestiano.

Of Hawksmoor’s London churches ChristChurch is the only one to command a long axial vista. Turning into Brushfield Street from Bishopsgate you are confronted by an almost overwhelming anthropomorphic presence, and it is interestlng to imagine how even more savage this confrontation might have been had the church been built without the portico as originally intended. As it is, the SerIian motif of the portico dominates the West front, and the belfry arch with entablature on each side and tripartite composition above reiterates the portico’s great thematic idea.

The portico can also be read as an extension of the volume of the nave out beyond the West front. With the plinths which extend out on each side of the steps and the pilaster-like projections of the north and south flank walls, a powerful sense of the longitudinal rather than centralised character of the design is apparent. It also becomes evident that this is not an architecture made up of separate elements added to one another, porch, spire, chancel, but a composition of vısibly interlocking masses. Seen from the west the shoulders of the tower form a massive cross axial plane of masonry rising from the plinth to intersect the longitudinal connection between portico and nave. The effect is amplified by the huge concavities to the north and south of the belfry which deliver a sense of the structure of the tower piercing up through the volume of the building. And this is exactly what happens internally where the masonry core of the tower rising from the entrance is hollowed out at each level to form vestibule, vestry room, and then ringing chamber and belfry emerging above the roof.

Externally, the rising stages of the tower eIaborate and resolve the cross axial theme. The recessed core of the tower emerges above the shoulders as a square base for the spire, which in turn consists of two intersecting pyramidal obelisks topped by a gilded globe, bringing a final resolution to the tremendous forces below.

The interior of ChristChurch may not as readily decIare the passionate complexity which characterises the exterior but there are equivalent compositional and spatial themes. The seven bays of the nave are intersected by a transept consisting of three bays marked out by clustered columns and piers and above by three coffered barrel vaults on each side. The first and last bays are set beyond the main volume of the nave by screens each consisting of four Corinthian columns supporting entablatures which extend out from the aisles. At the west end this arrangement provides for galleries and frames the organ. At the east end it fulfils the liturgical role of separating the chancel. But Hawksmoor’s architectural intentions were also to create spaces within spaces and to use the Corinthian columns and their entablatures to give the volume of the nave a sense of equivalent containment on all sides and to mediate between the nave and the lesser scales of sanctuary and vestibule.

Hawkmoor’s first proposed site for the church was at the north end of Brick Lane where it would have been at the periphery of eighteenth century Spitalfields. On its present site the church stands as a focus for the extraordinarily mixed community of co-existing interests, ranging from the wealth of the City to the poverty beyond Brick Lane and from Whitechapel to Bethnal Green Road. The restoration of ChristChurch, its role as place of worship, its increasing use as a venue for music and cultural activity and its architectural presence make this strange masterwork a fantastic symbol for the regenerative energy and creativity around it.