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SOME FEATURES OF ITS ARCHITECTURE

T

HE general style of the building was determined by the desire not to depart too far from the sombre yet familiar face of the old Dean's Yard. A greyish tone therefore pervades the red brickwork; the ground floor has arch-headed windows as of old; as have also the four big windows of the Chapel which is partly over the archway of the new Gateway into Tufton Street. The central pediment above the statue, described elsewhere, with the flat brick pilasters, is in the same position and of about the same height as before. The main cornice, too, in effect repeats the old one; and there is only one story added to the height of this facade. One change from the old building is the flint-work facing to the walls, here as well as to those of the three other ground floor stories of the building. Flint-work was chosen not only for a strong looking and rich base to the high superstructure, but also for its durability and cleanliness. Flints of all other building materials might alone perhaps dispute, even in a London atmosphere, Shakespeare's boast that his verse would outlive brass, stone and rocks impregnable. These flints are not newly quarried out of the chalk, as these are generally black, but were found on the surface and in gravel beds where for countless millenniums they have been bleached by the weather and impregnated with ironstains of varied colours, as have their agate kin. The flints first used in the building came from a gravel-bed near the Thames east of Gravesend, and later from Cambridgeshire. Special gifts of flints have come from Cobham and Nurstead and a specially large one from Southfleet, Old Rectory, all neighbouring parishes in Kent. Some too came as a gift from Winchester and in these the Shield of the See is inlaid.

The other changes are the arched portico and the open stone balustrade which takes the place of the old forbidding iron railing, and links the walls with the stonework of the terrace. The terrace, rebuilt with its old stones from the older Abbey building, gives, as a second base, strength and dignity to the facade. At the east end, beyond the Gateway with the Chapel and Library over it, the front returns, being joined to and supported by the new buildings for a Westminster School House. Thus a sense is gained of unity with the buildings of the Precincts which they had in mediaeval days. On the other or Tufton Street side of the Gateway the same sense of unity and support is gained by the return of the School buildings, which were designed and built in unity with the Church House.

FENESTRATION

The fenestration of the three fronts facing the public streets, which are let for offices, shops and such purposes, is treated very simply with sash windows above the flint-faced lower story. But where the big rooms of the Church House reveal themselves on the outside, the Hoare Memorial Hall in Great Smith Street and the Convocation Hall in Tufton Street, distinct expression to them is given by stone-mullioned windows. Such windows, too, mark the house of the Abbey Clerk of Works, which partly faces Tufton Street and partly overlooks Dean's Yard. Tiny windows on either side of the Gateway mark the Sacristy within. Along part of Tufton Street the windowless wall of the upper part of the heating chamber gives a high solid base of flint-work, where the masons have shown their greatest skill. It is here that the old moulded stones found in the mud of the Abbey ditch have been built as bondstones connecting the flints to the core of the wall behind. They probably belonged to the 14th-century Dormitory or the Gatehouse and Mill, foundations of which, as well as the abutments of the old bridge over the ditch, were found. The base of an old pier of the Gatehouse is preserved in situ in the basement.

Modern buildings with their necessary lift headgear are apt to present to the distant view very ugly sky-lines above the roof; but care has been taken to make these as seemly as possible.

The floors throughout being of flat slabs and straight beams of concrete, a flat plaster treatment of the ceilings was demanded; a curved cove only is added in better rooms to soften the light and to avoid dark corners. The same practical as well as aesthetic demands determined the circular ceilings, groined at intersections, to the Ambulatory and some of the principal corridors.

There are two exceptions to the general flat treatment of the ceilings: one is the Chapel, where the aesthetic form as well as the practical effect of lighting both by day and night are all important. The groined elliptical vault, to compare the small with the great, is reminiscent of the Sistine Chapel with its beautiful curved surfaces. The other exception is the ceiling of the Assembly Hall. The construction of this, as of the whole Hall, is dominated by the laws of acoustics.

Unlike the other halls, which are comparatively low in height and small in volume, the design of the Assembly Hall presented great acoustic difficulties. Sounds to be well heard must flow evenly to the audience and be reinforced by reflections which synchronise with the sound of the voice. The reflected sound wave having returned once within the right limit of time must be then killed by absorption. This limit is 75 to 8o feet, that is, not more than 40 feet each way; if longer on the journey it causes a prolonging and overlapping and consequent blurring of the sound. The spoken voice in its goings to and fro in the building must not, as Wordsworth says of music in the lofty vaulted roof of King's College Chapel, "dwells lingering and wandering on as loth to die". Music may love that prolonging or resonance, as does their resultant offspring intoning. Our ceiling therefore is within the correct limit of height and of a flat curve which is not determined, alas for the architect! by aesthetic reasons, but by those of the even distribution of reflected sound over the general audience. This reflected sound, after having reinforced the voice, will be absorbed by the clothing of people in a well-filled hall. Other parts of the ceiling and walls from which the reflection would not add to the strength and clearness of the voice, are covered with an under layer of sound-absorbing material. A circular plan, like a Chapter House without a central column, is obviously the best shape for the close gathering of people, but is the worst acoustically for a speaking and debating chamber, for the reason that the circular walls concentrate reflected sound and produce loud and silent patches. So here, to overcome this difficulty, the circular wall is broken up into convex facets which evenly disperse and distribute the sound reflected by them. Moreover, to prevent the voice of the speaker being reflected upwards, away from the listeners on the floor, this faceted panelling is sloped forward so as to reflect the sound mostly downwards to the floor and only partly to the gallery.

The panelled wall at the back of the platform in the Hoare Memorial Hall is sloped forward for the same purpose. It acts as a sounding board to speakers on the platform, and to a less degree strengthens to those who sit there the voices of speakers on the floor of the Hall.

These have worked together with the architects, Herbert Baker, R.A., and A. T. Scott: Charles Wheeler, R.A., Sculptor; W. T. Monnington, R.A., Painter; Laurence Turner, Modeller and Carver; J. Lindsay, Ironworker; Harry Parr, designer of the Ambulatory plaques. The illustrations in this book, are by Charles Wheeler.

From the Book "The Church House - Its Art and Symbolism"
Published for the Corporation of the Church House June 1940.
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