Irreplaceable Architecture

Lucca is reputed to have a hundred churches within its city walls. I don’t know how true this is – I haven’t seriously counted them except to suggest that there is an incredible profusion of religious buildings when walking the city’s streets and that they are sited in places to surprise – at the end of a twisting alley, at an oblique angle to a square, within a city gate, rarely at the end of a processional avenue.

Although the majority of Lucca’s churches remain consecrated and can be used for church services many of them are largely devoted to secular uses. At least three of them are auditoria, San Romano (see https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/03/10/beethovens-choral-symphony-at-san-romano/) and San Francesco (see  https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/07/07/magisterial-monastery/)for instance, and all have excellent acoustics because of their almost perfect aisle-less “shoebox” shape à la Musicverein (where Lucca’s Philharmonic orchestra under Colombini’s enthusiastic baton will perform next month – see my previous post).

It’s just as well that Lucca has conserved its churches and found new uses for many of them since, unlike so many cities of music, it has no dedicated concert hall (that is, if one excludes its largest theatre, il Teatro del Giglio).

It could once be said that London was a city, not just of a hundred churches within its historic centre, but of a thousand, if one included its fast expanding Victorian suburbs. Escalating from those lovely Canaletto paintings, showing London’s almost Venetian-like river view with domes and spires, early photographs show a city which approaches those evocative drawings in Pugin’s Contrasts. There are plenty of steeples and towers not yet flattened either by bombs or, as is regrettable more likely today, by fashion architects’ mammon-mammoth excrescences.

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Apologists will claim that London is an ever-changing multi-ethnic, commercial-financial centre with different priorities from Lucca. It still, however, remains one of the most popular world tourist attractions and also a place where people love to live in and enjoy doing other things besides making money. The real problem with London is that it has not conserved what Italians call its “Centro Storico”. Because of the historical vagaries of not expanding the City’s boundaries, there was little chance of financial building developments taking place outside the “square mile” – that is before Dockland port decline and Canary wharf came onto the scene. So truly, little remains of London’s former appearance – several old buildings, but minute in terms of what is most valuable: the street-scape. (the Temple being a notable exception, of course).

So what is the situation regarding London’s churches? Lucca’s great period was the mediaeval age with its silk manufacture (remember this portrait of a prosperous Lucca family in London’s National Gallery?).

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 It was during this time that most of Lucca’s churches were built. True, many of them were later baroquized, but looking at their exterior walls tells you when they were first built and what their original style was.

London’s greatest period was arguably the Victorian and Edwardian ages and it was at that time that the majority of its churches were built. Yet so many of these places of worship which now could have become a major part of London’s cultural tourism have fallen victims to the demolisher’s pick axe and the designer-architect’s pipe dream. Could they not have been converted into auditorium, community centres, theatres, exhibition centres or art galleries as so many of Lucca’s churches have been? London might have been the Mecca of Victorian and neo-gothic sightseeing, yet I can’t help feeling that what we are seeing now in London is a vague recollection of a city that must have been so different and so much more extraordinary.

I have recently been in touch with an old school-mate who lives in a Victorian inner South London suburb opposite an early church by that leading figure of neo-gothic architecture, Sir George Gilbert Scott. I am slightly confused exactly which church my chum refers to since his address is within the old London borough of Camberwell and the only early G. S. church I know there is the fabulous Saint Giles which dates from 1844.

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 The one Victorian gothic church I recognize from my friend’s street address is, alas, no longer with us.

In 1982 I entered a non-conformist chapel of some dilapidated distinction with fine red brick and stone construction and encountered a scene of depressing desolation. Much of the fine stained glass windows had been smashed by vandals, and entering into the vestry I found the scores of some great choral works, popular with Victorian choirs, such as Stainer’s crucifixion, Maunder’s “From Olivet to Calvary” and, most awful of all, the “Divine” Spohr’s oratorio “The Last Judgment” spread in tatters around the broken tiles of what once must have been an inspiring and beautiful interior.

The church was subsequently demolished and a centre for the aged, installed together with a small meeting hall for what was left of the once flourishing congregation, built in its stead. At least, another estate agent’s or supermarket branch wasn’t erected there.

I have only these forlorn pictures to remind me and others of this chapel. If you know anything about it I’d be grateful to know. Advanced thanks.

I feel so sad at realizing how many more repetitions of this barbaric pattern I have had to witness in London well into the eighties and nineties when rather greater awareness of the inestimable patrimony of Victorian and early twentieth century architecture had been infused by such doyens of architectural writers as Gavin Stamp.

At least in Lucca I am largely spared from this terrible heart-ache which almost destroys a part of my spiritual being. Long may Luccans regard their churches both as sacred places, as inspiring spaces and as social beacons for all that is good and great in art and music. May there be no Last Judgement here!

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(Pardini’s version of neo-gothic at our own Bagni di Lucca’s Anglican church)

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3 thoughts on “Irreplaceable Architecture

  1. I feel that the comment on London’d Churches is somewhat harsh as indeed many have been transformed into housing educational centres even theatres as we witnessed in Hammersmith many years ago with King Arthur amazingly staged in a Church which was very evocative indeed! There are churches that serve the same function dotted throughout London in the City and London and environs. We must not forget also the great Fire of London which would I imagine have destroyed many wooden buildings as well as Churches plus Henry VIII it would in fact be interesting to have figures of such events I wonder if records can fulfil this.

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