Tales from the crypt: Dow Jones Architects refurbishes a Hawksmoor icon

Tales from the crypt: Dow Jones Architects refurbishes a Hawksmoor icon

Christ Church Spitalfields, widely regarded as the masterpiece of English Baroque architect Nicholas Hawksmoor, is opening its crypt to the public for the first time in its some 300 year history. Funded by the Monument Trust and sensitively refurbished by Dow Jones Architects, the space now encompasses a new café, gallery and performance space. Works to the crypt follow the restoration of the nave in 2003 and the Baroque organ in June this year, completing a three-phase redevelopment of the grade I listed building.

The design ambition was to support activities in the nave with the ability to operate independently for venue hire. Three bold gestures define the remodelled crypt; a grand entrance ramp, the creation of a flexible open-plan environment and the insertion of timber volumes to accommodate support facilities. Hawksmoor envisaged the west elevation as an arched gateway to the city, representing the connection between centre and edge. Embracing this notion, Dow Jones conceived the entrance ramp as a continuation of the street, connecting the buried crypt to the city. Fashioned in York stone with metal railings, the ramp references the familiar features of the London streetscape.

Historically, the crypt had been subdivided in a piecemeal manner.  Now, non-structural elements are stripped out, revealing Hawksmoor’s magnificent vaulted structure. The Portland stone columns have been restored to their original state and lime render to the brick vaulted soffits replaces a tired plaster finish, unifying the spacious interior with a bright undulating soffit. Daylight and ventilation are capitalized from perimeter clerestory windows, augmented by new lighting and mechanical systems.

The crisp appearance of the lightweight timber walls inserted between the heavy stone structure, creates a clear dialogue between old and new. Housing the ancillary spaces and concealing service routes, the unvarnished oak elements play an understated role, allowing the newly formed views of Hawksmoor’s impressive architecture to take centre stage.

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