Saturday, April 30, 2011

St Canice's revisited

Yesterday I went to an ADNZ (Nelson Marlborough) meeting held at St Canice's Church in Westport. Russell Walden and Julia Gatley spoke - Russell telling the story of his life from a wheelchair and Julia her DOCOMOMO talk with a some added detail about St Canice's and John Scott.

I don't think that Russell Walden was very impressed with the church, at least he went out of his way to point out what was wrong with it, as is his way, perhaps. (He was also critical of New Zealand architecture, architectural academia, and architects.) I agree with him that the church is cluttered, that the Stations of the Cross are weak, that the incorporation of the gothic stained glass from the previous St Canice's was unnecessary, and that the crucifix should be on the large wall to the left of the altar rather than bolted to the thin pillar behind.

As Russell pointed out there is often a disconnect between the architect and the Church, that neither knows the other well enough for the relationship to produce a wonderful building. I think the size of the cultural/aesthetic gap in Westport was shown most starkly when we went to the church hall for afternoon tea, the hall being the most architecturally barren building you could imagine, a blank box with high windows, cream interior walls and contrasting forest green steel beams.

It surprises me that John Scott managed to design a church of this quality in this environment. It is not a lavish building, it is a plain and simple church that is also architecturally interesting. And I like it's quirks - the almost Spanish bell tower, the door-handle coat hooks, the concrete and wood pews, the stone altar, even the gothic windows. I think it is much better architecture than the Church deserves, and would be much improved with the removal of the plaster-cast saints, odd antique furniture, expansive notice boards, and oversize loud speakers (the two speakers high above the altar are architectural blasphemy). It is sad that the yellow acrylic has turned clear in the sun as the light from the celestials would be warmer.

I like the way Scott has constructed the church; the proportions of the windows and concrete block walls, the geometry and elegance of the floor plan, the use of light and contrast, the choice of materials (especially the matai ceiling and brick floor). I also like the way it is clearly related to Scott's other churches, it is part of a series, the development of ideas, but that it is also unique and can stand on its own.

There is much more to like about this building than dislike and it is a shame that its flaws, rather than its qualities were Russell's focus yesterday. This church needs to be loved as a building, its spirit nurtured, and we all have a role in that.

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