The new ‘cathedrals’ …
.. Jane Embury, Marketing Manager, Wrightstyle, believes that the secular buildings that we now visit to shop and use for public transport offer much to wonder as the place of worship used to be.
Once upon a time, architecture was about balancing form and function and designing a built environment that enhanced its surrounding structures. It was about sensitivity to what was already there whilst creating functional buildings that people wanted to live and work in
The history of architecture is also about buildings that feed the soul; the grandiose and landmark structures that help to define civic or national pride and identity. In the UK, examples include the Houses of Parliament, Windsor Castle and the Millennium Dome – buildings that are both an ideal and an idea, embracing concepts of nationhood, monarchy or progress. In that respect, the Millennium Dome wasn’t a bad building: it was just a bad idea.
However, throughout the world, architecture is also defined by the infinite: the buildings that helped to form our relationships between the temporal and the eternal. Whatever God you offer prayers to, He (or She) can be found in a church, mosque, synagogue, chapel or temple near you. The architecture of religion offers a parallel between its adherents and what it offers: from the sublime forgiveness of the Cistine Chapel to the stark rigidity of a Free Church on a Hebridean island. We are what we believe, and religious buildings reflect that belief structure.
Those belief structures are best defined in the grandest of the grand: from Westminster Abbey to St Paul’s, from Stonehenge to Durham Cathedral. The cathedrals of the soul stand testimony to the grandiloquence of religious belief and the ingenuity of architects and builders down the ages. Our need to symbolically connect with the infinite is made tangible in brick and stone.
Now, with religion in decline – at least in the UK – the old cathedrals are becoming places to visit rather than places to worship. Westminster Abbey, Stonehenge and the other great centres of faith – certainly western faiths – are filled with tourists with cameras rather than parishioners. The days of building great Christian buildings has passed. The cathedrals that we have are likely to be the only ones that we’ll ever have. Well, maybe.
Because it seems to me that new forms of secular cathedral are springing up, fuelled by relative wealth, relative ease of transport and by a benign, if distinctly secular, form of capitalism. Once we bartered our goat for a handful of corn; once we thought that the folk down the road lived on the other side of the world. Now we can worship afresh: witness the new architecture of the shopping centre and airport – the modern cathedrals that fulfil our flights of retail fancy.
The opulence of the modern shopping mall or airport terminal are centred around the need to handle large numbers of people in comfort and safety – the main considerations that apply to all public buildings. What has changed is that the balance between form and function has tipped towards form – the most modern of shopping malls are bright and airy structures designed to free the soul and unlock the wallet. Changed days from bland concrete and, well, more bland concrete.
In the past year, we’ve supplied glazing systems to two examples of the new retail cathedral. The first, to Midsummer Place, a £170 million project in Milton Keynes covering 450,000 sq ft, and built around a 150-year old oak tree that has been carefully preserved.
For that project we supplied over 500 sq metres of SR 60 large-span curtain walling, giving 30 minutes integrity and insulation fire protection and certified to BS476 part 22, underlining how large span curtain walling can now incorporate fire protection, whilst still maintaining expansive glazed vision areas.
We’ve also supplied a large span glazing system for Ocean Terminal, a prestigious retail development on the shores of the Forth at Leith, Edinburgh. Ocean Terminal, home to the Royal Yacht Britannia, incorporates 1130 sq metres of Wrightstyle curtain wall glazing system, with each piece of glass weighing some 450 kg.
The overall glazed span at Ocean Terminal is 16 metres in height, with the largest individual free span of ten metres, with the mullion centres set at four metres. A question, perhaps, of large span replacing stained glass? The 440,000 sq foot complex, costing £120 million, is part of the overall regeneration of Leith, itself the largest waterfront development in Europe.
Part of the changing demand we have seen, particularly in the retail sector, is towards making more and better use of glass and glazing systems, but with fire safety very much in mind. Modern glazing systems can now meet the most stringent requirements – especially in retail applications where there may be large numbers of people.
We’ve also supplied to a number of airports – most recently, in the United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Again, the trend is towards the grandiose – as if the architects are trying to blend the temporal and the infinite: wonderful structures to uplift the soul or, at least, calm the nervous passenger.
Glass and glazing systems are an integral part of the new secular cathedrals. They provide light, internal temperature can be controlled and modern fire resistance offers security. Couple those advantages with the larger spans that are now available using steel glazing systems, and there are few limits to what can now be achieved using glass.
Next time you visit a large, modern airport or shopping centre, have a good look around you. In these vaulted palaces, God and mammon can seem to be sharing the same space – fuelled by design and other technologies that have allowed architects to find new ways to express our innate sense of the infinite.
Your local shopping mall and Westminster Abbey may not be on an architectural par but both are designed to appeal subliminally to our instincts. A loaf of bread or bread of Heaven: the art of design is being crafted, using technological advances, in new and surprising ways.
The new ‘cathedral’. Midsummer Place, a £170 million project in Milton Keynes, where Wrightstyle supplied over 500m2 of SR60 fire resistant large span curtain walling.