Craig Hamilton Architects’ latest work at Williamstrip Park is far removed from the architectural mainstream, but presents a challenge to it, says Ellis Woodman

Buildings.

Words
Ellis Woodman

Photos
Paul Highnam

Craig Hamilton’s latest Roman Catholic chapel is his third to date, and represents his most recent addition to Williamstrip Park, a Gloucestershire estate where he has previously extended the seventeenth-century main house and built a freestanding temple-fronted bath house. The chapel forms an expansion of this work but stands at a distance from the main house, alongside one of the entrances to the estate. It is reached by a path that runs perpendicular to the building’s east-west orientation with the effect that, whether approaching from the house or from the village bordering the estate, we are initially confronted by one of the side elevations.

Buildings.

These are structured in three bays: a wider, central part comprising a run of four stained glass windows with clear Diocletian windows above and expanses of minimally relieved masonry to either side. Incorporating pilaster in antis mouldings, these side bays present the character of monumental pylons, between which the much more insistently articulated central bay is contained.

The contrast is compounded by the fractional recessing of the middle part and also by the introduction of incised drapes between the tall windows and projecting architraves above them. Both features restate, at condensed scale, a concern with the interpenetration of shallow planes.

Hamilton has modelled the principal elevation with significantly greater muscularity by treating it as a monumental gateway, which has slipped out from the fractionally wider and taller volume behind. The front-face is unadorned save for a deep projecting entablature which is interrupted to expose the enormous voussoirs of a central coffered arch. Recessed within we find a pair of bronze doors decorated with a depiction of lilies, the symbol of Mary to whom the chapel is dedicated. She is also referenced more directly in a bas relief of the Annunciation, cast from an original by Luca della Robbia, which is located immediately above the doors and in a stained-glass window that occupies the semi-circular head of the arch.

The one other signifiying feature is a pair of long-hanging floral drops set within slots to either side of the doors. Hamilton’s use of this form was inspired by the entrance of John James Burnett’s Edward VII galleries at the British Museum (1914) which incorporates a motif of hanging acorns with a bead and reel set in between. He used it extensively at the Chapel of Christ the Redeemer at Culham (2015), but in the new chapel the form takes on an explicitly gendered reading and becomes the dominant theme of the internal decoration.

Buildings.

On entering, we find ourselves in a compact narthex, separated from the nave by a walnut screen which incorporates depictions of episodes from Mary’s life in pierced and gilded bronze. To our left stands a restored eighteenth-century chamber organ and to our right a baptismal font comprising a monolithic block of polished Portland stone into which a Connemara bowl has been inserted. This element’s octagonal form is extended by an elaborately carved and gilded font cover in polished oak which hinges open to reveal a depiction of Christ’s baptism, witnessed by a grouping of saints.

The provision of stained glass windows was at the request of the client and their presence immediately imbues the interior with a very different atmosphere from that which we encounter at Culham. This is a product not only of increased illumination but also of the greater height that Hamilton felt the windows demanded. Presenting depictions of female saints, these are framed much like the niches housing the apostles at Culham, between columns of black Kilkenny marble. However, the order here is the more vertical Corinthian, expressed with capitals in white Carrara marble which incorporate floral drops on their corners, rather in the manner of the bells of Lutyens’ Delhi order. The columns’ overall scale is also greater than at Culham, and together these factors contribute to an increase in height of some sixty centimetres.

The columns carry an entablature of alternating black and white marble, from which springs a plaster barrel vault incorporating blanket-like panels interspersed with recessed floral drops. The motif is also used to either side of the windows and, more liberally still, between the Kilkenny-lined niches ranged around the apsidal sanctuary, each of which accommodates statuary. Here, the building’s black and white colouring finds its most intense expression in the freestanding baldacchino covering the altar, which can be read as a temple in miniature. Supported on four Corinthian columns its structural stone barrel vault presents a pattern of white ribs interspersed by black coffers, each of which is punctuated by a central white star. On the ends of the two black marble beams which carry this load, further depictions of lilies are inscribed in white, the graphic language drawing strongly on that of Alberti’s similarly coloured Rucellai Sepulchre in Florence (1467).

Not the least notable feature of the three chapels that Hamilton has now realised is that they came to be commissioned at all. Their cost, function, and reliance on pre-industrial craft skills – let alone their classical expression – each sets them at some considerable remove from the mainstream of twenty-first century building production. The 1890 Arts & Crafts chapel at Madresfield Court – the model for Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead – was perhaps the last example of its type to be realised in Britain before this recent unexpected revival.

They represent such an assured and individual body of work that it might be thought unnecessary to raise its relevance to the problems that define the general quality of our contemporary environment. In Dallas, Texas, Hamilton is now realising his first substantial office building, but scepticism about the applicability of the classical language to contemporary building problems remains widely held.

If there is cause for optimism that he might yet claim a role in mainstream practice, it lies in the fact that the binary opposition of ‘traditional’ and ‘modernist’ camps, which dominated architectural discourse across much of the last century, is finally giving way to a more nuanced picture. Architects such as David Chipperfield and Caruso St John may not employ the orders but their concern with qualities of static mass, taut profile, symmetrical bearing and massive tectonic expression locate their architecture squarely in a classical lineage.

Buildings.

Both these latter practices have shown the potential of recent developments in precast concrete production to enable an architecture assembled from monumental components of highly refined detail and it is tempting to speculate on the uses to which Hamilton might yet put such technology.

Conversely, Hamilton’s work deserves to be seen as presenting a significant challenge to the constrained spectrum of expression within which most contemporary architecture operates. Where else, we might ask, are buildings being made today that demonstrate such a mastery of the craft of construction, such sophistication in their symbolic and tectonic narratives, such intensity in the formal relationship of their constituent parts and such commitment to the coordination of architecture, sculpture and the applied arts towards an integrated whole?

Additional Images

Download Drawings

Credits