Whilst the Bishop Edward King Chapel didn’t win this year’s Stirling Prize it remains a stunning building project
Bishop Edward King Chapel – Ripon College, Cuddesdon
This year a very small building has made a very big impression and this is an in-depth Case Study of the project, looking at the remarkable stone exterior with comments from some of contributors:
Ripon College nestles in leafy Cuddesdon in rural Oxfordshire, a site chosen in the 1850’s ‘away from the fleshpots of Oxford’ for the original ecclesiastical college which is now one of the largest in the world. The chapel was funded by The Sisters of the communities of St John Baptist and the Good Shepherd and is named after Edward King who as a priest and then as a bishop was chaplain and then principal of Cuddesdon Theological College before becoming Bishop of Lincoln in 1885.
The Design & Brief
The brief called for “not just a building but a work of art which would touch the spirit”
A competition was launched over 4 years ago to arrive at a suitable design and despite being a rather modest structure it attracted over 126 entries from architects all over the world. Given the high level of competition is was all the more remarkable that one design stood out to become the unanimous choice of the jury panel. The design by Niall McLaughlin architects drew on many influences from Rudolph Schwarz to the recently departed Irish Poet Seamus Heaney. The design draws from various physical shapes from the elliptical floor plan reflecting “The cupped hands from praying” or the “Ship of Souls”.
The original design included the three bands we see today but the middle band was originally intended to be interwoven timber however this option was deemed aesthetically unsuitable by English Heritage who felt that the whole structure should replicate the surrounding listed Cotswold Stone buildings which populate the college grounds. The architect wanted to break up the exterior with a rough element and the timber interwoven screen has been replaced with the dog tooth stonework.
Beard Construction secured the project under a competitive tender process which owed more to attention to detail than price. It was felt from their presentation that they fully understood the dynamics of the project and the attention to detail required in its construction. Their long standing working relationship with the colleges of Oxford obviously reflected their ability in this type of project. They quickly assembled a team of specialist suppliers and sub-contractors who would not be daunted by the task ahead. Pre-Construction Manager, Martin Wareham was under no illusions ” We appreciated the detail, precision and quality of finish required and it became clear at the very early stages that the chapel was destined to become a ‘portfolio’ project.”
By default stone was always going to be the predominant material on this project and the architects called on Harrison Goldman Stone Consultants to advise on the most appropriate source. The stone featured in the surrounding campus buildings was quarried locally but no longer available. Harrison Goldman’s brief was to recommend a stone which was aesthetically similar but would also stand up to the rather exposed site. Peter Harrison, who is a world renown stone specialist who jets around the world consulting and lecturing on natural stone added ” Taking into account the geographic location, frost resistance was a key factor and the Clipsham Limestone was the only stone Harrison Goldman found that had sufficient test data to show it was fit for purpose”
On the back of such a glowing endorsement The Stamford Stone Company were bought on board.
Beard Construction have to be commended with their supply chain procedure as they immediately assembled their team, placed orders and held design workshops so that everyone appreciated the precision, accuracy and attention to detail required on this project. They appointed the Vauxhall based specialist stone contractors, Szerelmey Ltd who were in business when Ripon College’s original buildings were constructed 150 years ago. Szerelmey have a hugely experienced design team who dovetailed with Stamford Stone producing detailed design drawings and templates which encompassed the precision required within all aspects of the stonework from individual ashlar blocks to stone window surrounds. The partnership and technical planning between the main contractor, specialist contractor and The Stamford Stone Quarry enabled all parties to be very well prepared so that all of the materials were scheduled well ahead of the build programme. This resulted in sufficient scope for the precision cutting, almost all by hand, by the skilled quarry stone masons to reach the very high standards required by all concerned. The consequences of such forward planning meant the finished materials being assembled at Stamford Stone’s Peterborough works on pallets sometimes weeks in advance ready to be called off by Szerelmey. Such foresight needs to be commended as the arrangement resulted in no material related delays on site but also meant that any complications or alterations on site could be dealt with straight away. Having a team of skilled artisans installing the stonework also enabled any minor alterations to be made on site but as Steve Green, Works Manager of Stamford Stone revealed “Because of the forward planning our quarry team were so far ahead of the game that any replacements or alterations could be made and delivered to site almost instantly.”
The 11 metre high chapel, as mentioned consists of three distinctive bands. The lower 3.5 metres consist of precision cut ashlar in the specified Clipsham Limestone. These were honed using individually unique templates to fit within their specific location forming the teardrop shaped footprint, each piece marked and referenced. The middle band is however the real feature of the building. This section, which was to be a basket weave interwoven timber, now consists of a 4 metre high tapestry of over 35,000 individual hand cut Clipsham Limestone 250mm x 110mm x 80mm blocks precision installed in dogtooth bond perfectly aligned vertically and diagonally to create a stunning visual effect. The process was further complicated by the use of lime mortar to allow the necessary micro movement to avoid cracking however this mixture can neither get too hot or too wet requiring constant micro-management from the teams of masons installing the stonework. Tim Allen-Booth, Project Architect for Niall McLaughlin Architects felt the change from timber to stone actually enhanced the finished project ” We however think in the end that this was fortuitous as it is now a better building for being all in stone.”
The top layer is literally the icing on the cake. The ribbon windows, described as “a halo of natural stone fins” were specifically designed to align with the surrounding tree canopy level giving dappled shade and the opportunities for the tree shadows to dance on the buff coloured stonework. The steel frames of the windows are clad with Clipsham Limestone featuring cills, fins and copings designed by Szerelmey. Even from ground level the beauty of the natural Oolitic Jurassic Limestone fins can be admired. The grain bands within the stone rather paradoxically provide both a uniform theme and a unique signature so that each section remains individual within the overall concept. Martin Wareham of Beard Constructon added “The stonework is absolutely superb, the dedication by the guys on site in all weathers was fantastic, just taking their time and making sure it was done right, the overall finished article is superb. The precision on the dog tooth with the accuracy in the vertical, horizontal and diagonal planes is fantastic. That level of craftsmanship would be very challenging on a flat plane so it is all the more impressive within a continually curving wall.”
The use of natural stone for the whole of the structure has enhanced both the building design and its serenity within its environment. By keeping to a single building material there are no obvious diversions to the attention with this stunning structure nestling within the landscape providing nothing more distracting than stone and trees. The maturity of the stone facades within the existing college buildings provide just enough of a contrasting backdrop to provide centre stage for the new kid on the block and show it in its best light. Whilst there was BIM and 3D Modelling plus CAD and CGI’s its great that much of the good old fashioned craftsmanship involved in hand cutting the stone with it all being individually installed piece by piece is not so different from the system used in the surrounding buildings. Sophie Farrant, Development Director of Ripon College said ” The beauty of the building’s exterior comes from the use of a single material, natural stone, laid in a unique and complex way in three contrasting levels requiring exact precision in its construction”
Peter Harrison, past President of the Stone Federation Great Britain (SFGB) and a Deputy Chairman of the SFGB technical committee went on to comment – “Cast Stone is increasingly being used on a cost saving agenda but in my view it lacks the soul of natural stone which has a unique patina providing both a depth and a life of its own. The stone weathers giving the building a maturity and a very individual appearance. Bishop Edward King Chapel is one of the best projects I have been involved in for many years and I consider it on a par with the Diana Memorial and work on Buckingham Palace where I have been commissioned as the specialist natural stone consultant. I am lecturing to many of the world’s top architects in Verona at The International Trade Fair for Stone Design & Technology in September and will be majoring on the Ripon College project”.
The building has been universally well received not least by the client. The college principal, Revd Canon Prof. Martyn Percy said ” The new Bishop Edward King Chapel sits at the heart of our worshipping community. It is not just a beautiful building but a work of art which touches the spirit and captures our hope for the church and the world and for the shaping of religious and spiritual life. We are delighted to not only have a building which serves the needs of the college but is also a stunning piece of architecture.”
With its success in actually reaching the 2013 RIBA Stirling Prize last six a RIBA Press Release also applauded the high levels of material specification and attention to detail “. “Exquisite detailing abounds in all six projects, perhaps most potently in the Bishop Edward King Chapel in Oxfordshire whose rich stone façade and timber interior provide some of the best examples of craftsmanship the judges have seen for some time.”
We will leave the last words to Steve Green of Stamford Stone “ We are very proud of our whole team at Stamford Stone in not only being very effective as a supply chain but also in producing such a high level of precision without resorting to computer generated robots. The unique charm of this building is in its natural products and the use of Natural Stone but the fact that every piece has been individually fashioned here at our quarry is very satisfying. In fact many of the college’s original buildings from 150 years ago would have been produced in a very similar fashion and that is one reason why this building will blend in with its surroundings and still look as good, perhaps even better, long after we have gone.”
All images ©Front Elevation