Tales from the crypt

Converting an old building to incorporate a restaurant is a big challenge for architects, especially when that structure was a place of worship in its former life. Clare Dowdy says grace before opening the doors on to three recent projects

Transforming a house of God into a place to eat is no straightforward makeover. For a start, the client (or His representatives on earth) may well have a lot more to say on the matter than usual.

With an ancient and probably listed building, a designer’s first responsibility is usually to the fabric of the property. That means changes are often minimal and fashion is thrown to the wind in favour of longevity. It’s all about buildings as backdrops, and the ‘light touch’ approach.

This applies to structures which keep their religious function, like Norwich Cathedral and St Martin-in-the-Fields in London with cafés attached, as well as complete transformations, such as the capital’s 176 Gallery.

Norwich Cathedral refectory, by Hopkins Architects

Hopkins Architects director Andrew Barnett has been working on Norwich Cathedral since 1995, making it his longest project. And he only started working on phase two – the Hostry building, which will house a new visitor and education centre – last year. But, given the age of the building and the importance of detail, Barnett says, ‘You don’t begrudge the attention it gets.’

Barnett explains that the Cathedrals Fabric Commission for England’s Act of Parliament talks about new works to cathedral precincts only being allowed if they benefit the whole body of the cathedral. That means changes must be good for its religious mission, and must contribute some didactic benefit. ‘That phrase became a seed in our minds, concerning how the new buildings would reflect the medieval structures that had preceded them,’ he explains. ‘As the project developed, our dialogue with the commission really affected thinking about the building, down to the sizes and type of stone we used.’

Already up and running is Hopkins’ new-look refectory, effectively a dining hall in a religious building. Standing on the original refectory site next to the cloisters, the modern-day structure boasts a single-storey, glass and wooden box. This hides away the kitchen services, and its lid acts as a mezzanine dining area. ‘You can read that box like a building within a building, and the difference between old and new,’ says Barnett.

‘We like to do buildings that aren’t going to go out of style,’ he says of the dining space. So the furniture and flooring is based on English oak, where it could be afforded. ‘We weren’t trying to make a great interior design statement with the furniture.’

St Martin-in-the-Fields redevelopment, by Eric Parry Architects

This is a massive undertaking to unify the entire site, which occupies an area the size of Leicester Square. Robert Kennett, director at Eric Parry, says that the Trafalgar Square church has had a programme of enterprise since the 1980s, which helps fund its work with the homeless. So as a key commercial element, it was important to improve and expand the restaurant area. ‘We’ve made the café 65 per cent bigger, by moving the shop and putting the kitchen in the basement. This meant that we could open up the whole of the crypt, giving the scale of the space, and showing off the brick vaulting,’ says Kennett.

And while visitors may not notice many differences, the vaults have been cleaned up, some repairs have been made, fresh air is now supplied via an underground ventilation system, daylight comes in courtesy of new high windows facing north and south, and there’s new lighting.

‘We washed the vaulting with uplights and there are downlights on the stone piers,’ Kennett adds. ‘This makes it feel much brighter and can be toned down for St Martin’s popular jazz nights.

‘It’s quite a light hand,’ he says of the restaurant, with its new-but-simple furniture, ‘because we didn’t want to make it swanky, but open and accessible for granny to grandchild.’

176 Gallery, a conversion of a Methodist chapel into a gallery and café, by Allford Hall Monaghan Morris

‘We did as little as possible, says Allford Hall Monaghan Morris partner Simon Allford with regard to this 1867 building. Standing in London’s Chalk Farm, what started life as a Methodist chapel has since housed the North London Drama Centre and many squatters. Now, courtesy of AHMM, it is an experimental exhibition space under the control of the Zabludowicz Art Projects, a private collection of work by innovative and emerging artists.

Much of the architect’s efforts (and budget) went on repairs to the historical fabric: £1m of the total £1.3m was for essentials such as a new roof and cleaning the stonework.

The client was keen for the building’s character to come through, so that curators would react to the gallery as a found space, rather than a perfect contemporary gallery,’ says Allford. This also applies to the café (which boasts a good line in cupcakes) with its existing radiators and unashamedly patched floorboards. The counter is designed by AHMM, while the chairs and tables – by Howe – are intentionally varied. ‘Our idea was taken from Adolf Loos’ 1930s Villa Müller in Prague. As not everyone sits the same, not all furniture is the same,’ Allford adds. •

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