Repair ye to church

A baroque gem in a broke parish is being restored
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The Independent Culture
Christ Church (1714-29), in London's Spitalfields, is one of the greatest churches in the world. For years, friends and fans of this Baroque masterpiece by Nicholas Hawksmoor have toiled over its restoration. If the process has been painfully slow, it has not been for a lack of enthusiasm, but because money has been as short as Hawksmoor's steeple is tall.

Spitalfields, despite its rising population of City folk, has been desperately poor for nearly 200 years. Its survival as an enclave of almost intact early Georgian London owes as much to poverty as to the arrival of romantically inclined historians and architectural conservationists in the late Seventies.

For generations a low-budget home for political refugees, religious outcasts and the rag trade, the name Spitalfields has long spelt dissidence. In fact, the very scale of Hawksmoor's masterpiece - it towers over the adjacent terraces as ocean liners once did over the industrial hovels of Liverpool - was a result of church and state conspiring to stamp their authority on this querulous east London suburb.

Lavish funds were made available for Hawksmoor to build on a biblical scale in solid Portland stone. The church, designed to impress and perhaps even to intimidate, was always too big for its immediate purpose; the religious home of Spitalfields since soon after the Edict of Nantes has been the Huguenot chapel on the corner of Fournier Street and Brick Lane, which was later to become a synagogue and, in turn, today's thriving mosque.

Although never deconsecrated, Christ Church has only just survived, ekeing out a precarious living as parish church, concert hall, opera house and refuge for the area's many down-and-outs.

Finally, English Heritage has come to the rescue with the biggest grant yet made to a parish church: £435,016. Even then, this is less than the tip of the financial iceberg as the restoration, due for completion on Christ's 2,000th birthday, is expected to cost £4m. The grant, however, is expected to encourage a group of City financiers to underwrite much of the rest of the cost. The Diocese of London is also to contribute through its Stepney Area Fund; funding from the European Union is also possible.

When restored, the church will offer an improved refuge and rehabilitation centre for the homeless and rooms for use by the local community. Its role will then be greater than at any time in its history.

Architects for the restoration are Whitfield Partners. Red Mason, project architect, has lived and breathed the sublime atmosphere of Christ Church for almost as long as anyone can recall. Mason's minutely researched archaeological survey of the church and its site promises an exemplary restoration.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Christ Church is how unknown it is still, despite its position on one of the busiest roads in London and being the building in the shadow of which Jack the Ripper committed his infamous killings of prostitutes. But now that Spitalfields Market is coming back to life, the fashionable are increasingly making their way in search of organic vegetables and aesthetic thrills in this, the most shadowy of London's suburbs. That can only help in the final chapter of this extraordinarily prolonged conservation struggle.

The Friends of Christ Church Spitalfields, a registered charity, need whatever help you can give them: 0171-247 0165.