Earlier today the National Churches Trust released its list of the ten best modern churches in the UK. This juried competition was held to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Trust by highlighting the best sacred spaces built in the UK in the last 60 years.
First prize was awarded to St Paul Church, Bow Common in London. Long considered a masterpiece of contemporary church architecture, this iconic Anglican church is made even more impressive by the fact that its architects, Keith Murray and Robert Maguire were both in their early 20s when they designed the church in 1960.
In the above video, former vicar, Duncan Ross sums up the church’s characteristics and sense of space:
It’s not 60s flares, really, which soon die and you’re embarrassed by. There’s something very ancient about this building, which gives it a rootedness. I think it’s based on the most profound truths about relationship, which is that people need to see each other, need to be connected with each other, and need to gather together with each other.
Several Roman Catholic churches also made the top ten: St Mary Church, Leyland, Lancashire (1964), St Bride Church, East Kilbride, Lanarkshire (1964), St Francis Xavier Church, Falkirk (1961), and Ss Mary & Joseph Church, Poplar, London (1954).
This competition represents a wider movement within the field of historic preservation, which is beginning to recognize Mid-Century Modern buildings as being architecturally and historically significant. Churches from this era are certainly significant from a liturgical standpoint as well. This was an era of exploration and transition. Changing ideas about architecture, art, and liturgy fueled an era of unparalleled creativity, as seen in the churches represented in this competition.
What do you think? Are there other churches that you would add to this list? What would you consider the best churches designed in the United States over the past 60 years?
Though I have never had the opportunity to visit it in person, I have long admired St. Paul’s Bow Common from a distance.
Do they arrange tours of these great treasures? There have to be millions eager to travel to see them. They could charge a fortune and share the proceeds with the “churches” so they could maybe get a bulldozer and start over.
I have a real soft spot for pre-Vatican II modern churches, I think because the architects had to engage pre-existing Catholic iconography, architecture, and visual language. There doesn’t seem to be as much “reinventing the wheel” and purposefully avoiding that pre-existing visual language as you find later, so the designs are new and modern, yet still ancient and rich.
Another Maguire church is St Bede’s in Basingstoke, very different in concept, with an incredibly congregation-enhancing acoustic.
I don’t think any list is complete without Francis Pollen’s iconic Worth Abbey (even though modified recently — unforgiveably — by a former abbot), Above Bar church in Southampton (built into the middle of an office block) and the RC Cathedral of Ss Peter and Paul in Clifton, Bristol.
If we are including cathedrals in our own lists I would have to include Liverpool Metropolitan (where I sang in the choir for many years) where the liturgy is superb.
I see that my own church English Martyrs Wallasey was on the short list. That comes as news to me and a great number of other parishioners.
As a parishioner of St Brides East Kilbride it is great to see it get the recognition for its architecture its a wonderful building and a wonderful parish
It used to be the case that churches were designed with a nave for a pilgrim people and a sanctuary as the threshold of heaven, usually facing east to the rising sun, i.e the Risen Lord, highlighted by glass and surrounded with frescoes/paintings/statues of angels and saints in whose company we worship. I find it rather droll that most churches now seem to end in a brick wall, but does this indicate that modern church architecture has lost its sense of the transcendent ?