Alan Powers steps aboard a floating church designed by Denizen Works
“All the fountains of the deep were broken up and the windows of heaven were opened”: in apocalyptic times, a floating church seems a timely idea, so it is not surprising that Genesis attracted publicity well beyond its modest scale when officially ‘launched’ from its liquid home on the River Lee Navigation canal, adjoining London’s Olympic Park, during a rainy spell in mid-October.
It is a clever concept by the Diocese of London, meticulously realised by architect Denizen Works after a competition win, in the form of a newly-built barge hull with a fit-out that makes economical use of space and technology. The pretext for this catchy innovation was to “initially serve the two existing parishes of St Paul, Old Ford, and St Mary of Eton… with the ambition to reach new communities and bridge shifting parishes in the areas of the Diocese of London undergoing urban growth or change”.
Formed from concertinaed translucent sailcloth, the roof is raised by hydraulic rams and incorporates LED lights. In its raised position it increases the head height of the barge to 3.6 metres at its highest point.
The method of its mission is one of soft power – almost stealth, despite the diocesan logo on the cabin side, and therefore the description ‘church’ is perhaps misleading. Although operated by the recently ordained Reverend Dave Pilkington, during the first few weeks the folding altar designed by the architects mostly remained in its storage locker, and on-board activities involved social outreach and counselling rather than formal church services.
There is a correlation between this low-key approach and the fact that Genesis is moored amid a community of residential narrow boats and barges near the new technology-focussed workplace campus Here East, in an area where the London Legacy Development Corporation has decreed that it will not grant a site to any single-denomination religious building. The floating solution has, however, been achieved at a much lower cost than acquiring a site for a conventional church.
Commissioned by the Diocese of London as a mobile assembly space for the St Columba East London community, the wide-beam canal boat Genesis is moored on the River Lee Navigation alongside Here East at Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, where it will remain for three to five years before reaching other canalside communities.
As a piece of design, Genesis is remarkable as a collaboration between a naval architect, Tony Tucker of Tucker Designs, and Denizen Works. While conversion of an existing barge hull was the first thought, a new one was found to be less trouble and cost, and was built and fitted out at Chatham before making the voyage through Limehouse Basin under its own power. There are two principal spaces, with a meeting room forward, an access point with platform lifts on each side, and a rear cabin with WC, office and kitchen, giving access to a rear deck for steering. Storage is provided in traditional boatbuilding fashion in a series of lockers that provide seating in bays flanking the main space and elsewhere. A sound system is built into the panelling.
The assembly space has plywood-lined walls, a green linoleum floor and built-in Valchromat benches, and has a capacity of 40 people seated and up to 60 people when stationary.
The overall height is restricted by the need to pass under canal bridges, so the star turn is the bellows-style lifting cabin roof –disturbingly suggestive of a crocodile opening its jaws – made by sailmakers from white sailcloth. This rises at the bows on hydraulic rams to add headroom, in the manner of a Broads cabin yacht. Daylight comes in through the canvas as well as the cabin windows and a circular skylight. At night, the luminescence of the canvas adds symbolic significance and landmark (if that’s the right word) quality. The zig-zags of the pleated canvas gave the suggestion for the similar patterning on the internal window shutters, with an Art Deco touch that also evokes wavelets. A pleasing touch is added by the gentle upward curve of the tongue and groove boarded ceiling. For the architects, this seems a fitting addition to a portfolio that includes a mobile sauna in Finland and a teahouse in the foothills of Mount Everest, as well as 70 new homes in Croydon.
As well as hosting church services and interfaith celebrations, the barge is designed to accommodate activities including parent and toddler groups, pilates and art classes, lunch and supper clubs, live music, employment training and counselling.
The British canal system itself carries symbolic connotations that may not be irrelevant. It began to become obsolescent with the spread of railways nearly 200 years ago and sank into near-invisibility until the 1940s, when romantic enthusiasts such as the writer LTC Rolt helped the public to understand this hidden asset composed of landscapes, infrastructure, buildings and lifestyles threaded through town and country that seemed to betoken a kind of redemption from wrong turn of industrialism and a vision of human harmony with nature. Philip Pullman is only the most recent of many fiction writers who have evoked the canal boat life as a heterotopia, physically near but psychically removed from the everyday into a parallel universe.
Furniture was designed by a local company, Plyco, and includes plywood stools and foldable tables. A folding altar designed by Denizen Works has an angled front intended to recall the prow of a boat. A zig-zag motif based on sail stitches recurs in aluminium screens to the windows, kitchen tiling and on the edge of the roof, where it was painted by a signwriter.
It is perhaps this suggestiveness that makes a water-based instrument of mission such an appealing and unexpected innovation. The only parallel that comes to mind is the Puppet Theatre Barge, a less polished but more capacious vessel that moves between Richmond and Little Venice, offering a different kind of journey of the mind.
The plan is for Genesis to stay in one place for about five years before moving to another site, which would defer if not deprive us of the pleasure of watching the stately progress of the immaculate vessel through the varied landscapes of the London canal system, and thus seems to diminish the performative potential of the idea, but there is surely no reason to restrict its cruising potential.
Diocese of London
Giant Stride Graphics