A floating church has moored in East London

A floating church has moored in East London

Architecture studio Denizen Works has completed Genesis Floating Church – an innovative religious and community space for the Diocese of London

A floating church has moored in East London. The work of locally-based architecture studio Denizen Works, this innovative project brings together architecture and boat building, religious, community spaces and practice, and contemporary design. 

The project was spearheaded by the Diocese of London for the St Columba East London community, and has been created in close collaboration with Turks Shipyard and naval architect Tony Tucker. Now floating on the River Lee Navigation alongside Here East at Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, the scheme aims to become a beacon for local communities and a space to, not just pray, but also meet, gather and plan a range of activities in. As well as serving as a space for a church, the barge can accommodate, for example, parent and toddler groups, pilates classes and art classes, interfaith celebrations, lunch and supper clubs, live music, employment training, support workshops and counselling.

‘We wanted to develop a design which would transform in shape to be delightful and surprising to answer the client brief to create a ‘conspicuous presence’ on the towpaths of London,’ explains Denizen Works director Andrew Ingham. ‘Like all of our projects, we looked widely for inspiration and the trigger often comes from unexpected places. We drew inspiration from architecture that transforms as well as other spaces, including the classic VW camper van. The notion of the reconfiguration of spatial experience through mechanics felt right but we also wanted it to link back more directly to ecclesiastical heritage and through our research of church buildings through the ages we came across some beautiful woodprints of organ bellows. We were particularly taken with the sculptural form of these bellows and we wanted our roof to share this formal quality whilst establishing a subtle poetic link to traditional churches.’

Genesis Floating Church exterior

Architecturally, the design’s centrepiece is its unique, organ bellow-inspired kinetic roof. Created in translucent sailcloth, lined with LED lights and powered by hydraulic rams, it can expand and contract and adapt to the space’s needs. It can be easily operated by the touch of a button. 

‘Mobile architecture, particularly on boats, has a rich history and we looked at Rossi’s Teatro del Mondo and more directly Kahn’s floating theatre, which like the church transforms in use,’ says Denizen Works director Murray Kerr. ‘Our approach to the interior was to create a gallery space, free from religious symbolism, so that it would be welcoming to all, to align with the wider community uses planned for the boat. There are subtle references in the plan to elements of church architecture including the nave and aisles, but for the most part we have allowed the boat to be a boat within which we have inserted a beautiful room.’

Upon entering, midship, one side - the front - contains the main hall for about 40-60 people (depending on the configuration and circumstances) with its plywood walls, green linoleum floor and round skylight; while services, such as kitchen and bathrooms are located on the opposite end of the barge. Flexible, custom made furniture, has been delivered by local design company Plyco. 

Named Genesis, after the first book of the Bible, the project ‘alludes to the narrative of creation,’ explains the team behind it, which includes Rev Dave Pilkington, who will lead the new church’s activities. ‘Having an amazing space, that is beautiful, peaceful and offers hospitality in an unusual place in a creative and surprising way tells a similar story,’ he adds. ‘It’s good news and it is found where people might not expect to find it. That is disruptive in a gentle way, it can challenge people’s view of what Church can be and hopefully at least opens them to have a conversation about life and spirituality. It is also an intimate space which does not overwhelm or make you feel small and insignificant. I hope it becomes a place where people can feel like they have a seat at the table, a place where they can belong, as they get to know other people.’

The structure is set to remain on this spot for three to five years, reaching out and supporting communities living around the East London canal. §

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