Architecture

Caroline Springs Anglican Church

August 12, 2010

Atelier Wagner’s Caroline Springs Anglican Church offers clarity, resilience and an adaptable centre for this new and growing community.

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Cheap land and house prices have combined, in an odd way, to make Melbourne’s west a fast growing sheet of roofs and concrete carriage-sweeps stretching out into the Scotch thistles and scoria outcrops. Delfin, Caroline Springs’ developer, has been planting oaks and other trees by the thousand, so that the new suburb will read as an oasis. This is appropriate: nine kilometres back towards Melbourne, St Albans grew fabled as a sun-blasted spread of immigrant misery and unsealed roads, tied together by a sombre line of railway stanchions. Caroline Springs is further out still, north of the Rockbank Quarry; there you can still see the little windows in each jet roaring overhead out of Tullamarine Airport.

A major concern of Australian churches has been to establish a presence in these new suburbs. Here they are expected to act as major hubs of community contact and life, given that government is fast vacating such roles and the population will be largely young and expanding for some time. That was the projection here: Caroline Springs Anglican is one of several churches Atelier Wagner has worked on, all gentle but highly visible parish centres, but when this project was documented the suburb, even the roads, were not even there.

Locally, the best-known architectural antecedent to the project is Roman Catholic – Edmond and Corrigan’s Resurrection Parish complex at Keysborough in Melbourne’s south-east, 400 metres from the south-east suburban edge when built in 1974-82. The Caroline Springs church is not as comprehensive: the day-care centre, the primary school and elderly people’s housing are not in this scheme, though a retirement village and day-care centre are to be built next door.

The Caroline Springs church hall is at the moment an elongated room on the north-east side, used largely for meetings and Sunday school; this can be extended when the need is there and the finances are available. The church interior is deliberately plain and can serve as a larger hall. As it is shared with the Uniting Church, this plainness makes the liturgical fit easier. A congregation can flow into the foyer (developed from the glass-walled link in earlier bi-nuclear house plans). The north side of the church can also be opened out onto a lawn, so that the reredos triptych, a glowing fountain image by Jane Lemon, can be drawn sideways to reveal the new garden. At the same time the Living Water triptych is like a votive treasure inside, the inner jewel with its glowing fabrics on axis with the temple or basilica form. It was chosen by the vicar after he had seen Lemon’s work in Bath Abbey, and replaced a differently scaled reredos developed by Atelier Wagner, closer to its other church furnishings.

For a primarily frame building, the church reads quite differently to what you would expect on first approach from the city. The main shopping street in Caroline Springs curves north-west, each building in a knowing modernism. In detail the church is just as modern as these, yet it reads in a more traditional way, like a mediaeval church in the curve of a traditional high street. This sense is heightened by the timber cross outside, which acts in the long tradition of a wayside or intersection shrine. The cross is lightly scaled and merges with the frame behind, but reveals itself through its orange timber and the cloth now wrapped across it, reflected in the glass immediately behind. This warm-coloured yet sombre event, among the cool plainness and greys of the exterior, subtly sets this church apart.

The curving walls to each side of the nave and chancel are clearly set free from the columnar grid – and at the same time set against it. In the plan they suggest hands grasping the communion chalice, and in three dimensions they give a remarkable sense of enfolding, embracing as one enters the primary church space. In texture these curved walls are silver-grey slate, also redolent of weathered timber shingles. These walls’ role as both an appliqué and a rhetorical component, an intervention in the grid frame and set against it, is shown in the way they are held clear of the cement-rendered base. On the west side the upper wall is separated by a faceted ribbon window, tinted amber against the sun and at the same time restating the church inheritance of stained glass and the significant ‘placed’ window. Seating is a loose array of chairs and some ripple-glass tables – not unlike sitting at a library, lounge or café table. The chair and table combination flows out into the foyer-lounge alongside. The invitation is always there to change the seating and standing patterns.

Looking out from within the church, the streets and intersection outside are literally drawn into the nave in support, as they were in Atelier Wagner’s previous Anglican church, Holy Spirit at Watsonia. The whole curve of the Caroline Springs Boulevard and the shopping centre can be seen, which lends a sense of the finite… and, perhaps by chance, of something of renaissance urban space – the streets of Masaccio’s miracle frescoes. One’s first impression is that this view, framed through the south glass wall, acts like a fresco.

The church’s distinctiveness is also in the intersection of its Miesian temple form with the curve of its church walling, accentuated as the structural grid breaks through the wall and ceiling tissue time and again, outside and in. Most of all, the churchly sense is sustained in the street placement, and the church’s return to the main street. Again in Miesian terms, the large glass wall frames an instant yet circumstantial picture, as in Mies’ Farnsworth house. The difference here is the urban-suburban image. The Farnsworth house framed natural imagery. Here the main tree-like forms nearby are the spindly galvanised sprouts of the street light stanchions. Foliate suggestions are drawn into the church obliquely, where strands of black and white electrical flex flutter down from the otherwise crisp wall and ceiling details. This was an adjustment – the original design included imposing four-cabled hung lights. The wandering cable is almost a motif: from the main lights in the church… to the subordinate ‘chapel’ lights to the left of the sanctuary… to the hand dryer cords in the toilets. These are endearingly vulnerable in note, undercutting the implicit perfection of the Miesian frame and Corbusian curve, and they have cropped up in Wagner designs before, as in the expansive interior of their Syndal Baptist Church, where the space seems literally geared to movement in tumult. Church needs will change over time, but even these simple details have resilience, as Louis Kahn urged. In Caroline Springs the cross, and the nine roof monitors that work as a dome or clerestory, recall Kahn’s Erdman Hall Dormitories in Bryn Mawr, 1965.

There is no ‘campus’: the car park and most of the open areas are all behind the building. Instead, the space between church and town is cast as a gathering place along the lines of Barcelona’s Ramblas. Atelier Wagner’s schematic drawings even call it that. It is lined with concrete paving circles, linked in a chain. So the church is sustained in street placement, the reflections in its glass ever presenting, a return and response to Main Street. Caroline Springs Church is the newest building in a line of impressive architecture from Atelier Wagner. These projects recall the Sunshine Coast architecture of Lindsay and Kerry Clare, but are more clearly urban and suburban in their recognised context: taking the circumstances of encounter and occupancy and running with them, using cool, crisp materials, always set in argument against an item, a panelling, an episode of warmth and texture. The exterior is cast as a kind of figural painting by Atelier Wagner’s use of light and shadow. These two elements run with eloquence through their design. As in the practice’s earlier St George’s Reservoir, at Caroline Springs the play is concentrated on the perimeter – the intersection of the frame and inset walls. Their curve casts them as a membrane, setting out the internal space as cool shade by day, the bright and shimmering core of a lantern at night.

Conrad Hamann is associate professor in architectural history at Monash University.

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