Architecture: A temple of simplicity to soothe the soul: A new north London church has been greeted with dismay by local people, but Jonathan Glancey finds it a powerful and moving building

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The Independent Culture
THE Hornsey Journal, a north London advertiser, has not been the staunchest fan of the new Church of St Paul, Harringay. A year ago, as this powerful new building was rising above its architectural congregation of Victorian terraced houses, the paper ran a front-page story ('Unholy Row raging over new church]') in which it solicited views from local people.

'Even builders were dismayed,' the article trumpeted. 'One said: 'I've been in this game since 1947 and helped build hundreds of churches, but this is the worst. It is depressing to come here every day.' '

It is difficult to know where those 'hundreds' of parish churches built gamely since 1947 might be and even more difficult to submit oneself to the authority of a newspaper that, in the same report, describes Alexandra Palace as a 'pseudo-Victorian, neo-Romanesque carbuncle of Corinthian proportions'.

But, more seriously, it is sad to see an important new building - one that will place Harringay firmly on the cultural and spiritual map of London - reviled before its true impact can be measured.

Designed by Peter Inskip and Peter Jenkins, St Paul's is a powerful and moving building. In simple planes and volumes of brick, steel and reconstituted stone, it captures the idea of religious contemplation. It has the elemental qualities of a Greek temple, of a Cistercian abbey, of Shoosmith's church of St Martin's, New Delhi (the recent rebuilding of which has been supported by readers of the Independent), and of Le Corbusier's pilgrim chapel at Ronchamp. It is neither modern nor ancient, but enjoys the timeless appeal of all great religious architecture. Inside, the qualities of proportion, light and sound conspire to quieten and elevate the rowdiest and most worldly spirit.

Perhaps what has upset local papers, planning committees and politically correct residents most about St Paul's is that it was commissioned by a politically incorrect and vertiginously High branch of the Church of England. When the designs were submitted, local planners suggested that the new church should not dominate its surroundings as its Victorian predecessor had done; instead it should rise no higher than the rooftops of the terraced houses that stamp their fanciful facades on the neighbourhood.

St Paul's, however, is far more 'correct' than its detractors would like to think. It might be 'High', but the church attracts a large proportion of black worshippers (two-thirds, says the resident priest, Father John Seeley) and it is a focal point of a disparate community of ethnic minorities. Father Seeley keeps the church open for unusually long hours and, even for those for whom organised religion is an irrelevance, the new building is a place to escape the everyday world. It is also a handsome new monument that gives sprawling Harringay a visual anchor.

The new church replaces old St Paul's - a late Victorian Gothic design - destroyed by fire on Ash Wednesday 1984. Stripped almost bare of superfluous detail, its power to move the spirit to silence derives solely from its basic architecture. On one level the church is no more than four walls topped with a roof in the form of an extruded pediment, through which daylight filters down into a vast and singular white- painted room. The salmon-pink brick walls are punched through with the tiniest square windows; inside, the exposed bricks are painted white and left unadorned. Yet this is no Lego-style box. The way in which Jenkins has arranged his four walls and simple steel roof is extremely subtle.

The church, in Wightman Road, occupies a steeply sloping site but is entered on the level without a single step up from the pavement. Passing under the great projecting pediment, between the massive banded walls and beneath the steel louvres of the belfry, worshippers enter under an organ loft, through a free-standing portal and into a gigantic, light-filled room covered with a lofty ceiling shaped as a cross of Lorraine.

As far as possible, every element is restrained. Yet already - inevitably and perhaps not wrongly - the silence of the architecture is being taken over bit by bit by the familiar accoutrements of parish life. Here are blue candles, statues of St Anthony and St Paul hung around with name tags to remind visitors who they are, leaflets and cushions, incongruous bits and bobs.

On the one hand, the architecture is powerful enough to swamp such venial visual sins; on the other, they irritate in much the same way as a rogue eyelash. But who can afford to be so puritanical in their attitudes towards a church where what matters most is that people are attracted to it, want to attend its services and lean on its priests? St Paul's is as sublime as any pounds 750,000 building can be.

Two artworks have been commissioned by the architects: Stephen Cox's craggy altar, carved from a slab of imperial porphyry brought from the Egyptian desert, and a reredos of travertine, also by Cox, depicting Christ crucified above a map of St Paul's travels.

The church will be visited by students of architecture from as far and as wide as the journeys of the apostle. In time, it will be welcomed by the people of Harringay and even by the Hornsey Journal.

(Photograph omitted)

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