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Bishop Edward King Chapel

Bishop Edward King Chapel

Arnold Laver Gold Award & Structural Winner 2013

Project Title: Bishop Edward King Chapel
Location: Oxford
Wood Species and Products Used: European oak, American ash for fitted furniture and internal doors, spruce glue laminated timber.
Building client/owner: Ripon College
Architect: Niall McLaughlin Architects
Structural Engineer:  Price and Myers
Main Contractor/Builder: Beard
Joinery Company: D Smith Joinery Ltd
Wood Supplier: Cowley Timberwork, Lincolnshire
Other services: Westside Design, Synergy Consulting Engineers

The project is a new chapel for Ripon Theological College, to serve the two interconnected groups resident on the campus in Oxfordshire, the college community and the nuns of a small religious order, the Sisters of Begbroke. The brief asked for a chapel that would accommodate the range of worshipping needs of the two communities and provide a separate space for the Sisters to recite their offices, a spacious sacristy, and the necessary ancillary accommodation.

The site is on the brow of a hill, beyond an enormous Beech tree. Facing away from the Beech and the college buildings is a clearing ringed by mature trees on high ground overlooking a valley below. This clearing has its own particular character, full of wind and light and the rustling of leaves.

The starting point for this project was the hidden word ˜nave” at the centre of Seamus Heaney poem Lightenings viii. The word describes the central space of a church, but shares the same origin as ˜navis”, a ship, and can also mean the still centre of a turning wheel. From these words, two architectural images emerged. The first is the hollow in the ground as the meeting place of the community, the still centre. The second is the delicate ship-like timber structure that floats above in the tree canopy, the gathering place for light and sound. The elliptical plan reflects the idea of exchange between perfect and imperfect at the centre of Christian thought. To construct an ellipse the stable circle is played against the line, which is about movement back and forth. The movement inherent in the geometry is expressed in the chapel through the perimeter ambulatory. It is possible to walk around the chapel, looking into the brighter space in the centre. The sense of looking into an illuminated clearing goes back to the earliest churches.

The chapel, seen from the outside, is a single stone enclosure. The roof and the internal frame are self-supporting and act independently from the external walls. A minimal junction between the roof and the walls expresses this. Externally the roof parapet steps back to diminish its presence above the clerestorey; inside the underside of the roof structure rises up to the outer walls to form the shape of a keel, expressing the floating “navis” of Heaney’s poem.

Inside the glue-laminated timber frame both animates and organises the nave of the chapel.

The structure of roof and columns express the geometrical construction of the ellipse itself, a ferrying between centre and edge with straight lines that reveals the two stable foci at either end, reflected in the collegiate layout below in the twin focus points of altar and lectern. As you move around the chapel there is an unfolding rhythm interplay between the thicket of columns and the simple elliptical walls beyond. The chapel can be understood as a ship in a bottle, the hidden ˜nave”.