There is something brutal, modest and pure about St John Chrysostom Church in Peckham, says designer Max Lamb, who has created a new altar, sanctuary floor, altar candleholders and a Paschal candleholder for the modernist Anglican church (opens in new tab) in south London. ‘It’s not adorned with a lot of decorations or carvings as you would see in other churches,’ he adds.
Completed in 1966 and replacing two earlier parish churches that had been bombed in the Second World War, St John Chrysostom has a slanting copper roof, a sawn softwood ceiling and a tower feature above the sanctuary that provides dramatic indirect lighting to the space below. ‘When you’re in the congregation looking at the altar, you don’t see any windows and can’t see where the light is coming from,’ says Lamb. ‘So it creates this diagonal shaft of light which makes for some spectacular effects and shadows.’
Commissioned by the church on behalf of the Diocese of Southwark and produced by art curator and producer Aldo Rinaldi, the project saw Lamb respond to the stark beauty of the building’s architecture and the simplicity of its material palette by keeping his offerings in the same sober but poetic register and sticking to similar materials.
He was keen for the additional elements to have presence, however. ‘When I first visited the church, the original altar was made of brick and wood and the effect of the brick altar against a brick wall backdrop meant it was almost invisible.’ Lamb opted instead for Portland stone for the altar and the candleholders, which not only contrasts well with the surroundings but is also a nod to the fact that one of the previous churches on the site – St Jude’s – had been built out of Portland stone. ‘One of the stone columns from the site was retained and turned into the baptismal font,’ says Lamb. Two other small and unusual elements made out of the same limestone can be found in the church: a cantilevered seat behind the altar and a wall plaque just above it.
The altar is composed of four slabs of Portland stone held together using slot joints and a fifth slab inserted within the four walls. With its cross motifs in the four corners where the legs meet, and its recessed base designed so the parish priest can stand closer to the altar, the finished object looks imposing but has an appealing floating quality despite its weight.
The two candleholders are made of the same sedimentary stone and are cylindrical in shape, while the imposing Paschal candleholder is also cylindrical and made of Portland stone but is quite a bit taller (1.35m) and features a reclaimed teak base for stability that neatly repeats the cross motif of the altar.
The last part of the church Lamb tackled was the stepped, raised sanctuary floor that had been covered in cork and was in a state of disrepair. ‘I am generally very pro cork, but I decided that it was another foreign element in this instance, in that it wasn’t a material that was present elsewhere, so my proposal was not to add something new here but to remove the old and polish the concrete beneath it until it looked honed.’
The new-old floor complements existing concrete elements in the church, such as the original coloured glass and concrete windows designed by Susan Johnson and the large concrete base for the organ pipes. The result, enhanced by highly effective natural and artificial lighting (courtesy of a recent renovation), is a quietly dramatic, uplifting and meditative space with the sculptural altar and candleholders at its heart.
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