God's house in a Goth's hands

Jonathan Glancey reports on the splendours of Douai Abbey, near Reading, commissioned in 1928 and completed just in time for Christmas 1994
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Douai Abbey sounds as if it ought to be in France. In fact, you will find it this side of the Channel, at Woolhampton, near Reading. If its name is puzzling, the abbey church has been something of a riddle for the past 60 years. Until a few month s ago, had you approached the church from the east, you would have seen a grand brick, flint and stone Gothic choir and nave rising powerfully from a prominent hill like some unknown and magisterial French cathedral in English dress. But once you had sur mounted the hill and entered the abbey grounds, you would have stumbled across a well-intentioned sham: a fully fledged choir attached to a nave no more than a bay and half long.

Where it should have stretched to some imaginary crossing, tower and noble west end, it ended abruptly in a blank, steel-framed brick wall. That was because, like many modern Catholic foundations, the Benedictine monks of Douai Abbey had, long ago, run out money while trying to raise a church to match the ambition of their pre-Reformation brothers. This year they will celebrate Christmas in a spectacular and beautiful new setting: the old abbey church as extended by the architect Michael Blee.

The monks of Douai came to Berkshire from France in 1903. They were the successors of a community formed in Paris in 1615 of English monks who had been forced abroad at the time of Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries. Survivors of the French Revolution settled in Douai in 1818, only to be forced out by anti-clerical laws in 1903. And so, across the Channel to Reading.

The abbey church was commissioned from Arnold Crush, a Birmingham architect, in 1928. Crush's design was traditional Decorated Gothic except in his curious use of diamond-profiled columns and certain details that seem rather more Indian than English. Money ran out in 1932, when work stopped, and for the next 55 years nothing happened. When, in 1987, the steel frame supporting the temporary west wall was found to be rotting, a decision was taken by Abbot Gregory Freeman to complete the church. A new wallwould, in any case, have cost £250,000. Michael Blee, an architect with great experience of church building was offered the job, and a budget of £1.5m, after the community had interviewed 13 others.

Neither architect nor community had any intention of reviving Crush's plan. Not only has Vatican II long made long thin Gothic churches unsuitable for contemporary liturgy, but it would have been impossibly expensive to follow in Crush's wake. Crush had

planned five or six further bays marching westwards, but by 1987, when Blee was commissioned, each of these would have cost £1.5m.

Blee, however, had great respect for the original design; it has a quality of light that, on certain days, can truly be called sublime. Blee's idea, a powerful one, was to abut a new extension up to the Crush's final arch but, while picking up on the rhythms and palette of materials of the existing building, to keep the new work entirely separate both formally and structurally. So, no weight whatsoever is transferred from the new structure to the old. And yet, while the result is a dramatic meeting of traditional and contemporary ecclesiastical design, the two parts make a convincing whole.

The new extension is a thing of massive slate roofs stepping down in origami-like folds from the high old roofline to a beetle-browed narthex, or entrance porch, at the new west end. A tent-like structure of laminated timber carried on giant raking reinforced columns in a Bath stone finish, supports an airy clerestory roof. The structure is entirely exposed, like that of a medieval church. But unlike a Gothic church, Blee's plan allows for a vast and uninterrupted auditorium. The altar is raised at the junction between old and new buildings. Light floods down from the continuous band of clerestory windows. Between mullions and leaded lights, echoing the rhythm of their Gothic partners further to the east, these are filled with panels of antique German and amber glass. Two triangular windows below the clerestory at the meeting of old and new buildings filter light across the altar at morning mass; at evening benediction, a shaft of light illuminates the length of the completed abbey church from a chuteof glass that rises from the entrance porch to the clerestory.

Those who come to worship or listen to music here - recitals and concerts as well as plainchant sung by the monks from the Thirties choir stalls - are warmed by hot air rising from a hypocaust floor in Portuguese limestone, and protected by the great folds of the roofs covered in acres of blue-green slates shipped from Vermont. These are from the same geological fault as the Lakeland slates used by Crush, but three times as cheap. On the outside, these roofs reach down, close to the ground, to walls of handmade 2in bricks that, in turn, rest on a band of boldly chequered flint and stone that runs right around the abbey church, drawing the whole ensemble together.

Above Crush's bricks, stone and slates and Blee's Swedish timber, local metalwork and American tiles, a new copper fleche, or small spire, rises 20 feet into the Berkshire sky to announce the project's completion.

No description of what Blee has done physically can adequately capture the ethereal and deeply peaceful nature of the completed abbey church. Blee's forest clearing and Crush's forest path meet together in a hymn of light. During services this sense of the spiritual is enhanced by incense, prayer, flowers and plainchant.

Here, modern technology, materials and engineering bow down before the ineffable: each works quietly to achieve, as far as this is ever possible, a timeless sense of grace and architectural space. Yet old craft skills have had their place, too. A brotherof the Art Workers' Guild, Blee employs the best craftwork available, appropriate or affordable in all his buildings. His first work was as an assisant to the architect then working as surveyor of St Paul's cathedral, who told him to listen always to the oldest craftsmen on the site and not to try to impose ideas half-baked from the drawing board. At Douai, roof slates are held in place by a method his craftsmen had discovered for themselves working in the United States and not previously used in Brita in.

Blee has also, like Crush before him, allowed himself to be influenced by ideas generated thousands of miles away that might at first seem to be irrelevant to an English abbey church. The plan of his entrance, for example, draws its inspiration from the narthex of St Mark's, Venice: it is what Blee describes as a "pre-compression chamber", a place where people adjust from the the human scale of the porch to the divine scale of the soaring church. The projecting entrance itself, he says, is derived from memories of Jain temples seen in India, where monks sit in prayer as if half-inside and half-outside the temple proper.

Such thoughts, he says, are "post-rationalisations", ideas that make sense only when a building is completed. At Douai, Blee's inspiration has created and completed a church at once memorable, workable, curious and delightful. Working so hard and at sucha level of crafted detail with limited church budgets, Michael Blee will never be a wealthy man. He has, however, made God's house beauteous and achieved the status of honorary Goth.