FEATURE

George Pace and St Teilo's, Caereithin

19 Apr 2017 | Judi Loach

George Pace (1915-75) was one of the most prolific architects in mid-20th century Britain, specialising in church building, for which he was one of the most radically Modern designers of the day. His approach was less-well appreciated at the time than it has come to be recently, as while his clients, churchgoers, often found his work disconcertingly Modern, architects tended to perceive him as insufficiently so, deeming his Modernism too compromised, above all due to his widespread use of traditional materials – notably stone, timber and wrought iron – often worked by craftsmen. 

 

These two issues – working for the Church and thus on building types outside the Modern Movement's manifestoes, and working in traditional materials – were often interlinked, not least since the majority of his work consisted of reworking or extending existing buildings. Pace saw his work as being resolutely modern because it was functional and moreover because he was rethinking that function – in the case of churches, liturgy – in a modern way, namely so as to encourage the congregation's active participation by treating them as equals with the priest: removing any separation between nave and sanctuary, setting the altar in free space and encouraging the laity to gather around it, and supporting congregational singing (by moving choir and organ to the rear). While he tried to realise these aims in his reordering of existing buildings, he could only fully achieve them in his few new build churches.

 

Pace was based in York and the vast majority of his work is in Yorkshire, but due to the Dean of York Minster, Eric Milner White, recommending him to the Dean of Llandaff, Glyn Simon, for the reconstruction of the cathedral there, South Wales became his second focus of activity, with him intervening in some 80 churches across that region. St Teilo's Caereithin (1961-63), in outer Swansea, is generally agreed to be Pace's best new-build parish church in Wales (photo 3). Outside, the asymmetric shed in blue engineering brick walls seems pretty unremarkable, so on entering one is surprised by the dramatic structure of a series of asymmetric, cruck-like glulam trusses, enclosing a single open space (and delimiting a side aisle, consequently lower in height), flooded with daylight – the Glamorgan Pevsner praises its "exhilarating internal management of space".

 

The clarity of the design and simplicity of décor – white walls and a limited palette of materials (whitewashed brick, natural timber and black-painted iron) – then help to focus on the altar, further emphasised by being sidelit, through a largely glazed side wall hidden from view by the easternmost glulam arch until one is close to. Finally, attention is secured by the striking black metal cross above the simple, bare altar.

 

While Pace was a Modernist – as shown not only in his functionalism and inventive forms but also the materials used (engineering brick, glulam, metal and perspex in the windows), and the way in which they are left bare – his functionalist approach derived from his largely Arts and Crafts training. This is in turn evident in his insistence on designing all the furnishings himself, with originality but equally with attention to the materials and detailing, and on their fabrication by craftsmen. 

 

For those familiar with his work, the simple wood and metal altar rail, the idiosyncratic, chunky pulpit-cum-celebrant's-seat-cum-prayer-rail and other sanctuary furniture in unpainted timber, and the organ screen (again unpainted timber) at the west end, are immediately identifiable as Pace, as are the black metal candlesticks. They are all at once unmistakably Modern yet rooted in the Arts and Crafts tradition, and together make this an exceptionally well-integrated ensemble of art/craft and architecture. 

 

In retrospect several aspects of its planning and structure have been seen as a parallel development to Pace's revolutionary William Temple Memorial Church, Wythenshawe (1960-66) - photos 1 and 2), with its unconventional plan and uncompromisingly modern structure, in this case steel beams and girders (but whose early designs were for glulam trusses like St Teilo's); but it can also be seen as a test bed for later churches, notably his St Mark's, Thornaby-on-Tees (1968-70) and The Ascension, Warrington (1968-1970). It is therefore widely considered as an exemplar of his design approach, hence its listing over a decade ago: "An important church by the leading ecclesaistical architect of the period, included for the radical nature and high quality of the design and structure and as exemplifying new architectural solutions to contemporary concerns about worship and liturgy." 

 

At the time of its design and construction this was, like so many of Pace's new build churches, intended for a new council estate, in this case serving some 8,000 people, in a district nearly five miles from the city centre, well above it at the top of a steep hill, and therefore somewhat isolated and indeed quite windswept. Over time this estate has become one of the most deprived districts in the UK, suffering from a high level of unemployment following the collapse of the steel industry in the 1980s. Some three generations of unemployment have engendered poverty, poor health, low levels of educational achievement and aspiration, and general community breakdown – all widespread in post-industrial South Wales, but especially pronounced here, as is recognised by its designation as a Communities First area. 

 

When I first visited the church a few years ago I was bowled over by the way it had become the centre of community activity: supporting community lunches (the vestry having been converted into a kitchen) and a food bank; providing a warm drop-in space open to local people, many unable to pay for heating their homes; and also welcoming the local association of learning disabled adults. Despite their own lack of material resources the congregation had made up Christmas boxes to send out to the third world and had generated one of the largest collections in the diocese for the post-typhoon operation for the Philippines.

 

Arriving as the main Sunday morning service ended, the chairs had been rearranged in the round for a more informal service together with learning disabled adults, with toddlers playing in the centre, on tricycles and the like; all then moved into the side aisle for a hot lunch, prepared by the vicar and church members. Further investigation revealed other church initiatives: a mother and toddler group; sale of affordably priced fresh vegetables, second hand clothes and furniture; free tai chi classes (exercise and relaxation); a course co-organised with the university to enable local people to get the qualifications needed to go on to further education; a litter clearance scheme for school children. Above all, it is heavily involved in the local Action Resource Centre (help with finding employment, café, IT training, homework support, arts and crafts, etc.) and the Family Centre (free parent-toddler and playgroups, lunch clubs, and vocational courses in subjects such as First Aid, food hygiene and Welsh) run by Faith in Families, a diocesan initiative. Both of these are run by a combination of volunteers and paid professionals, but a lot has been due to the initiative and support of an exceptional vicar and his wife, both qualified counsellors, and recognised as such by the local health authority.

 

Over the last couple of years the district has suffered serious decline. The local secondary school closed, and the turnover of residents has greatly increased, the estate becoming the council's "dumping ground" for asylum seekers, Syrian refugees or others whom it needs to house urgently, but who, not having any roots there, tend to move on as soon as they can. Council budget cuts have reduced services, exacerbating an already fragile situation. The vicar now looks burnt out, and has been informed that he will not be replaced when he retires in less than a year, so that the building risks being declared redundant, and then, due to its location, just left to decay. The church's own congregation has shrunk, and can no longer afford the building's running costs, let alone repairs, but the welfare services supported by it are in greater demand than ever, and require better premises. 

 

Inspired by the Church in Wales' projects elsewhere, and especially in severely deprived areas, notably the ex-mining Valleys, the solution seemed to be to bring Faith in Families' activities into the church building – in the process cutting the church building into two (leaving half for purely church usage) – and into a purpose-built annexe to be erected on land available beside it. A major driver in this particular case and in wider Church strategy alike is the availability of Welsh Assembly funding in Community First areas for facilities for local communities overall, but not for specific groups (such as churches) within them.  So many churches in the Valleys (and thus Victorian buildings), whose repair bills were beyond the means of their congregations, have benefited from such funding through conversion to community-and-worship spaces that this has virtually become the default solution throughout South East Wales.

 

The situation at Caereithin obviously seemed dire to all involved, and in need of urgent resolution. A local surveyor offered his services pro bono for drawing up a initial plans for a conversion and extension scheme, and he proceeded to spend over 18 months working with parish and Faith in Families. Unfortunately no one was aware of the building's heritage value, nor even of its listed status, and so no Statement of Significance was formulated. Moreover, although the surveyor is partner in a "multi-disciplinary property consultancy" that has carried out survey work on listed buildings, these have all been Edwardian or earlier, and it soon became evident that the firm has neither any informed appreciation of Modern design nor any qualified design professionals. The proposed division of the church building for logistical reasons (Health and Safety, Child Protection, etc.), half way down the nave, moving church functions into the western part while losing the eastern part to a new café took no account of St Teilo's architectural qualities. Eventually preliminary plans were submitted to the Diocesan Advisory Committee, which must have sensed a problem as it sent its architect member, a retired Cadw architect, to discuss them. However, this seems to have further complicated issues, as the parish group understood that it would be preferable for the sanctuary to be sited in the west end, with the altar against the west – largely glazed – wall, drastically changing the design to the degree of losing virtually all its significant features. It is unclear whether this move was due to poor communication or to an architect experienced in conservation but not of Modern architecture.

 

This patently undesirable scheme only came to light after a faculty application had been submitted to the DAC and then, due to the building's listed status, forwarded to Cadw and to the C20th Society as statutory consultees. The parish group was genuinely surprised, and disappointed, when objections were now raised. Worse still, by this time Faith in Family had obtained a grant of £1 million for the scheme, in part from the Big Lottery and in part from the Welsh Government's Community Facilities programme, but on condition that the first phase of works is completed by the end of March 2017, and the second phase by the end of September 2017; the scheme had therefore already gone out to tender, and the time available for any redesign was extremely limited.  

 

A meeting was arranged in late September bringing together the parish group with the surveyor, Jonathan Green (a Cadw architect), Clare Price (C20th Society caseworker) and myself (for Docomomo). A compromise solution was urgently required in order that the funding is not lost, as without this the building is unlikely to survive long term. The parish group was strongly advised that in order to secure their faculty they would need to modify their scheme, and that while (reversible) division of the building seems inevitable, the altar (and other Sanctuary furnishings) should not be sited against the glazed western wall but instead against the eastern wall of the newly reduced church space; glazing should be let in alongside so as to replicate the current daylighting condition of the sanctuary as nearly as possible. While the design for the church conversion is being modified, work can begin on constructing the annexe – bland but comparatively inoffensive  – so that this is completed by the end of March; the conversion work can then being undertaken after the revised scheme has gained approval, in time to access the remainder of the funds before the end of September. It seems likely that this advice will be followed, as the parish has been made aware that otherwise the case could be sent to Consistory Court, with ensuing delays losing to loss of funding already gained.

 

This case seems worth reporting in detail not only because of the value of this specific building but equally the issues of wider import raised by it: the need for greater awareness of Modern Movement heritage in local communities, including deprived ones where heritage issues inevitably seem far less crucial than everyday survival; the need for owners or groups with Modern Movement buildings to call in professionals with specialist knowledge of this type of building, and to do so early enough (in this case, further funds exclusive to listed buildings could have been accessed, if there had not been the time constraint imposed by funding already gained); the need for conservation architects with specific understanding of Modern Movement architecture, and requirement of such training/experience as a prerequisite for dealing with such buildings.

 

My thanks to Chris Kiernan, Docomomo-UK, who included a case study of this building in his dissertation for the Architectural Association Dip. Conservation of Historic Buildings; and Jonathan Green, Cadw, for their input.

 

First published in Docomomo.UK Newsletter 32

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