This review first appeared in Architectural Review Asia Pacific #124: Architecture and the Body.
From the first open air, earthen churches of NSW, the Dapto Anglican Church Auditorium is a strikingly modern addition to over 200 years of Anglican building in Australia. With backgrounds in large international firms, it’s the first Australian-built project for Jad Silvester and Penny Fuller, who applied rigorous methodology to achieve a balance between urban design principles, the reinvention of the client brief and the challenge of restricted funding. Rather than creating a standalone iconic object, the church provides a hybrid between a religious and community space, fitting tightly within its context and stitching the site together to create an integrated complex.
Sited opposite the Dapto Mall, a car park and petrol station, the building is bound by roadways and a stream of traffic. This unromantic setting is softened by a generous street setback and the calculated move to build over a road that ran through the site, reorganise on-site parking and create two internal corridors connecting the church, hall and preschool. Modest in scale, this foreign object has a theatrical facade flaring out towards the urban setting and views to the escarpment. The new insertion fills the void between its neighbours, with a black textured finish articulated by bright white entry points. Its rough skin has an organic nature, contrasting purposefully with faceted cuts that draw visitors into a central foyer.
The building's aura lures visitors, often unaware they've entered a church.
The foyer space is the effective heart of the scheme, presenting a simple palette of materials with white perforated ceilings and fluorescent strips. This space funnels visitors into the church and provides generous room for gathering, amplifying the experience of entering the main 500-seat auditorium using geometric changes in height and shape. The construction with tilt-up concrete panels, steel-framed, single-pitch roof and folded glass facade is complemented by a strict palette of black and white. The church houses the auditorium, crying rooms, bathrooms, storage, a kitchen and a cafe, which add much to the sense of it being an accessible community space.
The church is a hybrid religious/community space, enabled by its new, spectacular auditorium.
Entering from the bright daylight of the foyer, the darkness of the auditorium saturates visitors with a geometry engineered in collaboration with Arup, optimising acoustics and a feeling of spaciousness and allowing a constant sense of proximity to the stage. Unlike traditional churches, the seating is intimately wrapped around a curved stage with black material finishes dissolving the edges of the room, distorting one’s sense of scale. Stripped back of all colour and frivolity, the monochrome scheme verges on an industrial aesthetic, yet creates an atmosphere fostering its use for both religious services and performances. The drama of the church plays out in the transition between the foyer’s natural lighting and the sheltered auditorium, between qualities of light, black and white. And while the interior spaces are simply detailed, there is richness in subtle changes in materials and rhythmic facets to walls and ceilings articulating the tunnelling circulation corridors. These qualities are exaggerated by the building’s black exterior, bold by day and luminous by night, when the building skin disappears and the crisp white cuts glow with light.
The foyer is the heart of the scheme, a simple material palette with white perforated ceilings and fluorescent strips.
This is Dapto’s second Anglican church. While the 1903 original is still in use, the creation of a second church enables a ‘complementary building’, extending the symbolic function, where the architects exploit the potential to reinvent the site, restructuring circulation and access and adding a commercial cafe that expands its use as a public place. New life is given to the former church hall and preschool using landscaping strategies, relocating offices, re-establishing the hall and connecting the three structures to create an integrated community space. This allows an unprecedented overlapping of events, with the church heavily used six days a week by a variety of users. The foyer, once a minor part of the brief, becomes the central connector, with seven points of entry making it the core of the scheme. It is the ‘informal lounge room’ – an interactive gathering space, internal street and attractor – that draws visitors into the building, often unaware they have entered a church due to its public aura.
The auditorium: transformative architecture.
Silvester Fuller have carefully tuned this project to achieve a formal response that is simple yet rigorously functional. The architects envisaged beginning with a solid that is carved out and sculpted, with the material response driven by circulation and function. Rather than a building made from visibly articulated parts, the cavernous circulation paths flow through spaces without right angles, a hollowed-out form generated by its site and context.
The greatest challenge in creating a church is probably coming to terms with the strong sense of ownership felt by a particular community group, which evokes highly emotional responses to architectural decisions. In fact, the success of this project can be judged by its enthusiastic adoption by the local community, who have embraced the new (and old) spaces of the site that are in constant use. This is a building of principles and beliefs both in symbolic and practical terms, signalling potential new directions in church building, where the people of the community can be positively involved and transformed by the process of making architecture.
Silvester Fuller: silvesterfuller.com.