Francis-Jones Morehen Thorp has eschewed tradition to create a church that embodies a contemporary attitude to spiritual expression, offering a modern-day “tent of meeting” to Sydney’s Broadway.
The new St Barnabas, an $18 million Anglican church on Broadway, Sydney, replaces the original 1857 brick workers’ church that was destroyed by fire in 2006. The new church by Francis-Jones Morehen Thorp (FJMT) is at once a forward vision for the twenty-first century and, somewhat oddly, a glance backwards, recalling the ancient Israelite “tent of meeting.” Yahweh’s presence is reputed to have appeared by day as a “cloud” at the entrance of the Old Testament tent Tabernacle. The cloud-like outline of St Barnabas’s roof is both a reminder, in contemporary dress, and a link to this ancient desert sanctuary.
With his masterpiece, St Denis, consecrated in 1144, Abbot Suger elevated luminosity and concordance of the parts above all else. For Suger, light had a mystical quality indicative of the divine. St Barnabas has two large light catchers at each end: outside, they swoop in a seductive self-embrace; inside, they quicken the spatial motion and draw the open foyer and chapel together. The effect is of lightness and of air circulating freely. The smaller light catcher, facing Broadway, has a light cross incised in its face; the larger, on St Barnabas Street at the rear, catches northern sunlight and feeds it through horizontal glazed bands into the chapel. The subtly curved roof profile might easily be mistaken for a frozen tent.
This is unexpected in such a monumental building, yet the church, with its curved roof soaring skyward in a dual crescent, with its slim glass crucifix, seems to echo the form of seventh-century BCE royal Assyrian tents from the time of Sennacherib. They too, like St Barnabas, had two unequal quadrant-shaped bonnets at each end.
St Barnabas is a university church with a strong connection to the Sydney University Evangelical Union. This explains its progressive, relaxed approach to liturgy. There is no altar and the pulpit has been replaced by a raised stage; hymn verses are digitally projected onto a screen. All of which reflects the youth of its parishioners, aged on average between twenty-seven and thirty. The architecture eschews tradition. Perhaps one should say that it adopts a contemporary charismatic attitude to spiritual expression – there is no whiff of Gothic, no pointed arches or stained glass to be seen.
The building is a social community centre, with creche, administration, multifunction and meeting rooms, in addition to offering a welcoming place for worship. Our notion of what properly constitutes and distinguishes a sacred place is radically challenged. The new St Barnabas lacks the paraphernalia of traditional worship, its drugged solemnity, rows of hard timber pews, robes, chants, incense, the expected thrall of embalmed ritual. Instead it is a sea
of nationalities and languages, with an emphasis on Chinese, as you would expect from its west inner-city location. The times have changed and St Barnabas was designed for the twenty-first century, not the nineteenth.
You must be wondering about the architecture – it is splendid but not without precedent, contemporary and ancient. I was reminded of Kaija and Heikki Siren’s Otaniemi Technical University Chapel (1957), with its modestly enclosed courtyard, its single elegant space looking out at a cross mounted in a small forest clearing. It engendered such a powerful moment of quiet simplicity, joining Christ’s passion with nature while reminding us of the exposed public nature of his crucifixion. Tadao Ando borrowed the Sirens’ symbolic gesture for his Church of the Light in 1988 outside Osaka. Like the FJMT work, it too was designed for a constricted urban location hemmed in by nondescript buildings. Ando explicitly acknowledges his expropriation of the cross emblem: his cross is a cross of light punched through a dark concrete altar wall.
FJMT adopted the same gesture and planted it on the vertical street facade of the smaller, upraised bonnet facing Broadway, sending an unmistakable message to passers-by that this is a church. The cross has acquired a three-dimensional reality. Outside, it resembles Ando’s cross; inside, the four cantilevered rectangular panels fold in a sculptural statement of intriguing symbolic power. Passing from the foyer into the chapel, the floor curls up in an arc and fuses with the walls. The smooth curved white ceiling leaps upwards to focus on the stage where once the altar would have stood. A deep, tear-shaped bridge housing lighting and speakers for the electronic sound system interrupts the northern light. In essence, the chapel is a theatre and performance space in much the same spirit as baroque churches.
The Hebrew tent Tabernacle served as the model for Christian temples. It captured the ethereal, dematerialized nature of religious ideas as the tent of meeting from the desert wanderings. It is this essence that St Barnabas revisits, perhaps unconsciously, in its reflection of the Assyrian royal tent, which – like the framed, red-stained sheep hide cover of the Tabernacle, with its two unequal bonnets and circumvallate fabric screen – is repeated in the rising Heritage Walk approach from Broadway.
St Barnabas is the first new church to be built in the city for forty-eight years. It follows in the wake of a liturgical revolution and is a direct response to the challenge to re-fashion church spaces by freeing them to meet the diverse demands of religious theatre as a performance space. Missing are traditional symbolic elements such as an altar, pulpit, organ and hymnbooks. Instead, the space must deal with the modulated entry of light, cater to the acoustic requirements of electronically projected voices and directional speakers, and project text so the congregation can join in song. The new electronic environment requires churches to reassess ritual spaces and strip away the dross of fossilized ritual. Only when this is fully understood is it possible to appreciate just how beautiful and triumphant a restatement St Barnabas is. The Renaissance discovered centralized space in the fifteenth century. In its fashion, St Barnabas represents a redefinition of sacred light.
St Barnabas Anglican Church was awarded a High Commendation (buildings of religion) at the 2013 World Architecture Festival in Singapore.