Bishop Edward King Chapel, Ripon College, Cuddesdon.
It’s very rare for any architectural magazine to feature a chapel but having reached the final 6 in the Stirling prize this is no ordinary building. It will be many years before a project comes along that showcases the levels of design and craftsmanship that have been displayed in abundance here in such a modest structure. The RIBA judges confirmed as such,”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.”
Ripon College is one of the worlds leading theological colleges set in leafy Cuddesdon in rural Oxfordshire. The chapel, named after a past principal who went on to become Bishop of Lincoln in 1885, sits very comfortably within expansive grounds surrounded by buildings dating back to the colleges foundation in the 1850’s.
The brief went out to competition and attracted entries from over 120 architects from all over the world. It says much about the winning design when it was unanimously chosen by the board of judges given the huge number of possibilities. Niall McLaughlin Architects presentation more than met the brief from the college which included the rather daunting request for “not just a building but a work of art which would touch the spirit”
Niall McLaughlins Architect’s design was inspired by an almost infinite number of sources from Rudolph Schwarz to the recently departed Irish poet, Seamus Heaney. Its elliptical floor plan was influenced by the recurring theme ‘ship of souls’ which again comes to the fore internally with the roof representing the upturned hull of a boat.
The surrounding buildings are all predominantly Natural Stone and the original design called for a three tiered facade with a ‘basket weave timber’ mid section again representing an old sailing vessel. The original source of stone was no longer available so Harrison Goldman Stone Consultants were engaged to advise on a feasible alternative that would match the existing structures. The most viable option was Clipsham Limestone, which was sourced from The Stamford Stone Company quarry just outside Peterborough. Peter Harrison, past president of the Stone Federation Great Britain explained his findings ” 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”.
A further slight complication was added by English Heritage who ruled out the basket weave timber by insisting that the whole of the building should be of Natural Stone in keeping with the surrounding listed buildings on the campus. The rather ingenious option employed by the architects in keeping the ‘texture’ they were seeking turned out arguably even more stunning than anything the original proposal could have achieved.
After a competitive tender process based on the understanding of the project, rather than just cost, Beard Construction were engaged as main contractors. Their 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.”
With such a high precision project planning and design were always going to be paramount and Beard Construction should be commended for assembling their team at the earliest possible opportunity. Szerelmey Ltd, the Vauxhall based stone contractors were bought on board as they have over 150 years experience with stone both in design and installation. Steve Dite, Contracts Director at Szerelmey went on to confirm their technical input ” Szerelmey worked very closely with the Architects on the design of this very complex construction, individually templating all the elliptical stones to ensure the desired accuracy was achieved.” The foresight also greatly assisted Stamford Stone who had detailed cutting lists, templates and project call-offs well in advance. 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.”
With three very distinctive bands within the 11metre high chapel, let’s start at base level with a 3.5 metre high section consisting of hand cut Clipsham Limestone ashlar blocks which are gently curved with each unique section referenced as to its exact position within the structure. The beauty of this buff coloured Oolitic Jurassic Limestone is immediately apparent showing the grain within each section giving it both a uniformity of colour and texture whilst paradoxically allowing each piece to be individually distinctive.
With the middle section now revised it has become the building’s Pièce de résistance, the 4 metre high course of Clipsham Limestone consists of approximately 36,000 individual 250 x 110 x 90mm ‘bricks’. These have been laid in dogtooth alignment with absolute precision in both the vertical and diagonal planes to create a visually stunning basket weave appearance. Whilst this incredibly eye-catching effect was very technically challenging in itself, the stone installation was further complicated by using a very traditional mortar mix. The architects rightly specified Lime Mortar for its ability to allow micro movement. The high levels of precision required for the dogtooth profile obviously takes longer than a more straightforward bond and the mortar can neither get too hot or too wet during construction. In order to avoid any potential failure of the mixture the Szerelmey teams needed to continually cover and protect the mortar during the whole process. 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 final 3.5 metre tier is again another triumph. A series of ribbon windows described as “a halo of natural stone fins” adorn the upper level whose height corresponds with the surrounding tree canopies. The recessed opening’s design and the existing trees presence allows dappled light to enter the windows with the branches casting dancing shadows upon the light coloured stone. The slender window surrounds are formed by steel framing clad with hand cut Clipsham Natural Limestone sills, fins and copings.
Internally the building is equally stunning with its simplistic style of light coloured Glulam timber which delicate filigree form seems to replicate the intricacy of the nearby tree crowns and canopies, whilst still fulfilling their ecclesiastical design mandate. The interior is so simple that there remains nothing inside to distract you other than perhaps the jaw-dropping workmanship. As previously mentioned the theme of the interior timber is an upturned hull but it has also been compared to paper chains. Peter Hogg of Cowley Timber explained the sheer amount of work involved with the stained Glulam Timber. “Geometry was managed by close file sharing allowing all of the design team to manage and monitor progress and interfaces throughout the design process including mock-ups and workshop meetings with proactive interest and visits to our workshops from the design team all the way up to the client. Installation issues were mitigated by the off-site manufacturing accuracies required and the ability to trial assemble elements of the structure within our workshop. Over 4000 man hours of production off-site in both the expressed internal frame and the inverted concealed timber panellised roof. The result is an approximate total of 26 cubic metres of Glulam timber taking over 10 weeks to install on site”
The building has genuinely touched many people regardless of their religious orientations but the exterior stone is truly stunning and Stamford Stone’s Steve Green summed it up perfectly “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.”