Full transcript of interview with Harry Charrington, for edited article please read Issue One. Introduction and interview by Jack Smith.
While travelling across Western Europe recently I was struck by the prevalence that religion plays in the structure of many villages, towns and cities. The focal point of the community is the church and even in the really poor villages huge amounts of time and effort had been put into constructing magnificent churches. Yet in Britain I can't help feeling that these are being overshadowed by recent developments, destroying a huge part of our history which lies within these monuments.
To help me understand the role that role that religion continues to play in the Bristol's structure I discussed the subject with Harry Charrington, Architecture Course Leader at UWE, Bristol. I started by asking him about the role that religious buildings play in the community.
HC: The church used to have a much more powerful role in society and that's reflected in the city by looking at the buildings. If you look at maps of Bristol from the early middle ages what's interesting is its dominated, not necessary within the city, but around the edges by huge numbers of monasteries, priories and abbies. They would be doing the work that would now get done by universities and hospitals. Particularly a friary would be an equivalent of a modern hospital and lots of current hospitals are based on them. So the reason why medieval churches are so much more grand and dominant is slightly answered by functional reasons. You might say the same thing happens as you go along the Gloucester Road where you will find the modern equivalent; as well as more recent additions like Quaker buildings, Buddhist centres and then in other areas like Fishponds where you can find the Sikh temple. They have an assertion within their communities because they do an awful lot of work, they are not just a place to pray they are very much a place to meet and they also carry out social and educational missions. So I think the role of religion has changed from that point of view. The role in terms of power has also changed; if you go back to the origins of Europe cities they have all got a temple, or something which is spiritual at the heart of the city and it seems to be central to human life to try reconcile a settlement with its nature or gods. This relates to Bristol where you have the cathedral in the city centre but when Bristol merchants became really powerful, the thing they did that is really striking, is built themselves an even bigger church outside the city walls. Being outside of the city walls by the docks was there assertion of their church at St Mary Redcliffe, we also have got the Lord Majors Chapel, just opposite College Green. I think you will find again as communities assert themselves they will often build themselves a really big church and you could speculate why it took until the '50s and '60s to build the Catholic cathedral up in Clifton: perhaps it takes that long for Catholicism to flower. Yet it does have a fantastic interior, I think it is absolutely wonderful inside.
JS: You mentioned a few of the broad range or religions that can now be found in Bristol. What role do religious buildings play in this diverse community and how is this shaping the city?
HC: One thing that I did with some students a while ago, in the Architecture Centre, is a big project based around the Gloucester Road. It interested me that if you look at the spread of the suburbs up the Gloucester road, basically through the late 19th early 20th century (I'm talking from St Paul's all the way up though Horfield). All of the parishes have got, at their centre, an Anglican church, as this was the established religion at the time. The Glocouster Road is fascinating as it unites about eight neighbourhoods as so many parishes back on to it. That's why it is such a fantastic road, because it has got all that energy, about 40,000 people who live near it, who go there for all the services that they can't get in their small small neighbourhood. We found that Gloucester Road has got all the new and slightly more marginal religions including Methodiststs and Baptist churches as well as centres for Quakers and Buddhists. This emphasizes the interesting relationship in Bristol between where the newer and less established religions tend to be located; often in areas between established communities, which tend to be dominated by Anglican churches.
JS: Recent developments seem to be shaped by our consumer-led society, rather than historically when churches were more strongly supported by the government. Do you think that this is having a detrimental affect on the city's architecture?
HC: I think there was genuinely a communal feeling about what you invested your resources into whether that was through labour or art and craft it was always a collective effort. I guess to an extent that still goes on in certain churches and certain religious buildings. But even when people complain about the London skyline is now dominated by tall buildings and if you look at a picture before the Second World War it's got this incredible skyline of churches, and spines and yet there is an aesthetic point to that, but actually it kind of looks the way we were as well. We are dominated by offices and the London skyline kind of looks like London, the way it is, it's a pretty irreligious place. It's interesting and I guess its happening in Bristol with the cathedral when they put the, in my opinion, wretched new Canons Marsh development, but they've done it now. They said they were going to preserve the sight-line towards the cathedral, which is the same as London, there are protected vistas of St Paul's Cathedral that you can't block with tall buildings. Now that's kind of happened in Bristol as well and with the cathedral it's because it's still important, it's still routes as something in Bristol that is a bit more than just bricks and mortar. I always think that if someone is making a fuss about something it must be important in someway and so the cathedral in some level, even if we're not going to church or anything, it maybe means Bristol to us.
JS: How can you see religion continue to play a role in shaping not only Bristol's architecture but the community as a whole?
HC: I do think its going to keep changing and I do think there are going to be issues. When people build mosques there is still quite a lot of resistant to it, there is still a sense of 'your putting in a mosque but are you disturbing what people might perceive as their Bristol'. There is still a lot of agitation and yet why shouldn't you build a mosque, there is a collective need. I find it interesting the way that mosques, not all mosques, but a number of them in Bristol and elsewhere began as meeting rooms in peoples living rooms and as the community has got a little bit wealthier, a bit more secure and maybe, hopefully society has got a bit more tolerate they are actually building mosques that look like mosques from the outside. That is the same with Hindu temples or Sikh temples, the lot. So I can see that people are going to carry on building and it also seems that new churches tend to be out in the suburbs. These new buildings focus on building a great hall to accommodate as many people as possible, rather than the symbolic nature of a lot of the churches in the city centre. Which have speak a more artistic language, if you like.
JS: It is these aesthetics that attracts me to many of the churches and religious buildings in Bristol. Do you think that the beauty both in and outside of these buildings warms the general community to them?
HC: I think huge numbers of people feel huge affection for those churches in the city centre, I don't think the church can afford to keep them up, but it has now become a focus for tourism. But I also think they have a role in memory, particularly the medievil churches in the city centre. The one that really strikes me, which I think is the most fantastic church, is the John Wesley Chapel in Broadmead. It's John Wesley's original chapel and it's a very congregational space and if you go in there now its still got a social outreach, they serve coffee and do a lot of pastoral care and the rooms that Wesley lived in upstairs are a musuem, really nicely done. And its right in the middle of Broadmead, so you're surrounded by this chaos and madness of shopping and you can go into this space that offers a change and I think a lot of people that go in there go, do so for a release, a kind of reconnection with something other than shopping. The bizarre thing is if you go there now two doors down there is an Ann Summers Shop, an almost comic book contrast and for a lot of people there is still a sense of connecting to something more than the everyday society and particular in the city centre more than just the drinking and shopping culture.
JS: How is the role of religious buildings different in some of the countries I travelled across?
HC: In hot countries, the churches are often quite cool, providing an obvious place of retreat and meditation.
JS: The huge variety of religions in Bristol provide a multicultural city, yet this also inevitably provides segregation. For large sections of the community religious areas aren't a place where they would feel comfortable, perhaps we need to consider a modern alternative that brings the whole community back together. If you have any thoughts or comments on the subject please post them below.