Built for the Belarusian community in the UK and dedicated to the memory of the victims of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, the Belarusian Memorial Chapel in Woodside Park, north London, is the city’s first new all-timber church since the Great Fire of 1666. Spheron Architects’ design refers to the Belarusian tradition of timber church-building, and draws on visits by practice co-founder Tszwai So to Belarus, where he recorded many historic churches, including some in villages abandoned since the reactor accident 30 years ago.
Accommodating up to 40 people, the 69-square-metre chapel sits among trees within the grounds of Marian House, a cultural centre for the Belarusian community, and replaces a makeshift place of worship inside the existing building, operated by the Belarusian Catholic Mission.
A domed spire and cedar shingle roof recall the Greek-Catholic churches of rural Belarus. “Most Uniate churches were built in wood and topped with a distinctive cupola in Baroque style with a sun-cross”, says Tszwai So. “This is in contrast to the churches with ‘onion’ domes and the Russian orthodox cross, introduced later, when the country was under Russian rule”.
Spheron Architects has introduced several contemporary twists to the traditional form, however, including an undulating timber ‘frill’ that enlivens the chapel’s flank walls. Vertical timber fins are cut lengthwise at five different angles to form a wave-like profile when the building is viewed obliquely, and create a varying play of shadow across the facade over the course of the day. The detail was again inspired by the baroque, says So. “Baroque is strongly identified with the Catholic Church in the late sixteenth century, when the Ruthenian Church of Rus’ broke relations with the Eastern Orthodox Church and entered communion with Rome in the Union of Brest, so it was also reflected in Belarusian ecclesiastical architecture of the time.”
The timber fins are interspersed with frosted glazing which allows warm light to seep from the building by night. This cosily attractive effect also has a sinister quality. It is “a reference to tragic events during the second world war, when Nazi troops in Belarus burnt down many wooden churches with villagers locked inside”, says So.
Worshippers enter though a vestibule that provides a lofty view upward into the bell tower, and opens directly onto the nave. The interior is entirely wooden, other than the historic religious icons that decorate a timber screen separating the nave from the altar area in the apse.
The structure is largely based on a jointed and pegged frame (“in the English and Western European tradition, rather than the log-cabin-building technique of East Slav countries”, says So). The long walls are formed of slabs of cross-laminated timber, supported at either end on posts, allowing for strips of translucent glass above and below, “belying the initial impression of huge solidity”, says So. Though these strip windows admit natural light, they preclude views out, in accordance with the inward focus of Byzantine liturgical traditions.