Show room: Parnell's Holy Trinity Cathedral's glowing makeover

by Chris Barton / 02 May, 2017
Photography by Patrick Reynolds

The neo-Gothic chancel and its rose window loom above the cathedral’s new addition.

An addition to Auckland’s hodgepodge Anglican cathedral opens up to the outdoors — and casts a golden glow.

Here is the church/And here is the steeple/Open the door/And see all the people.

Little of the old nursery rhyme with traditional church-like hand gestures holds true in the $4.9 million Bishop Selwyn Chapel at the Anglican Holy Trinity Cathedral in Parnell.

For a start there’s no steeple. Not surprising because the cathedral doesn’t have one either, although there was once a design for one crowning an impressive stand-alone bell tower which never got off the drawing board. But it’s really the phrase “open the door” that architects Fearon Hay seem to have misheard in their radical departure from the norm in church design. Instead of doors, the new chapel opens the walls on three sides with floor-to-ceiling glass so you do indeed see all the people (or their absence) all of the time.

As though that wasn’t open enough, the entire south wall disappears at the touch of a button, silently gliding apart as a motorised stacking slider to completely open the space to the air and the sounds of the surrounding garden, oak trees and sky. The ceiling of this three-sided pavilion, adorned in sumptuous gold leaf, curves up and out from the centre to the perimeter, lifting the eyes skyward. It’s the geometry of a blanket held taut then loosened to drape in the middle. Or a portion of the curve of an upside-down dome. The effect? Some would say transcendental, but at the very least you can’t contain a gasp. 

The adjacent St Mary’s Church is visible through one glass wall.

From the inside, the inside-out chapel demands an outward gaze. To what? Obviously the 5.6m cross which, while it’s technically behind the altar — in front of the transparent, sometimes departed, south wall — is outside. It’s see-through, too — a laddered, boxed crucifixion frame of stainless-steel tube and bar, gilded in gold leaf, by artist Neil Dawson. Hovering 8.4m at its apex above the garden lawn amid the oaks, it leans away from the chapel, apparently to create a feeling of ascension.

The sense of looking beyond, whether to a higher purpose or to the landscape view, is also at play in the cross’s alignment with the central north-south axis of the cathedral — the vision of George Selwyn, the first Anglican Bishop of New Zealand, who purchased the site in 1843 for $75. Here, the chapel completes a journey beginning at the northern end in the vast marae-like space in front of the timber- lined nave designed by Professor Richard Toy and completed in 1995. The northern end, with its jagged triple gable and dramatic porch-like overhang, provides multiple references — to the holy trinity, the wharenui meeting house and the adjacent St Mary’s Church, a wooden Gothic Revival masterpiece designed by Benjamin Mountfort and completed in 1888. The wide-span nave, seemingly unsupported thanks to its clever folded-plate structure, accommodates a congregation of around 1100 and joins the towering brick and reinforced concrete neo-Gothic chancel designed by Charles Towle. Its construction was put on hold in 1939, when World War II broke out, and only the first stage was completed between 1958 and 1973.

On either side of the nave are aisled spaces — ambulatories — that until now led to a dead end.

Today, the neo-gothic archways lead to the 130-seat chapel, which in turn opens to the Trinity Garden designed by Jacky Bowring, then a grove of historic oak trees and two columbaria columns for ashes. Beyond the oaks and completing the axis is Maungakiekie (One Tree Hill).

As journeys go, you have to say the cathedral is something of an eclectic mess, a hodgepodge of competing architectural styles, not particularly helped by the clashing array of stained glass and sculpture that adds to the general clamour.

“It’s a lot of additive elements,” says architect Jeff Fearon. “One of the things we were looking for rather than adding another element was whether the chapel could bring things together.” A big ask, but achieved to some extent by the minimalist combination of floor plate, terraces, glass walls and curved ceiling. Plus skilfully bringing a light touch to existing boundaries — keeping a respectful distance from the adjacent St Mary’s façade and detaching, with a strip of glass roof, from the south face of the imposing brick chancel and its ornate rose window.

“There is a lovely delicacy up there that if we wedged a building against it would be lost,” says architect Tim Hay.

“Another boundary was the trees and the garden. We used a lot of what we thought was the beauty of that space and its existing definition.”

More than 50,000 gold leaves — about a kilogram of gold — have been gilded to the new chapel’s ceiling.

More than 50,000 gold leaves-about a kilogram of gold-have been gilded to the new chapel’s ceiling.

So the chapel is contained by a set of outer boundaries that make it not as open as it might seem. The design does pose a few theological questions. What happens when you create a space where you can actually worship in a garden? Gardens can be a bit problematic for Christians — just ask Adam and Eve. So far, congregations seem to be adapting to their new visibility, although they can apparently be momentarily distracted when tui fly by. Then there’s the question embedded in the nursery rhyme: what’s the essence of a church, its building or its people? In taking away the walls, the chapel seems to be saying the people are paramount. Here they are showing the way. In the face of declining congregations, putting the people on display may be a good revivalist strategy.

You have to ask about the gold leaf. About a kilogram of gold in the form of 50,000- plus gold leaves — a random array of red, platinum and yellow gold — was gilded to the 320sqm of ceiling by Studio Carolina Izzo. In the process, the chapel that almost isn’t there becomes very present. For a church of the people, is this money well spent? The gold might well be used ministering to the poor.

The architects deflect the question. “It is okay to celebrate things that have a sense of beauty,” say Hay. “It’s certainly uplifting,” says Fearon.

There are other answers. Representing sacred space. Providing for the permanence of a cathedral. Even if you’re not religious, you can’t avoid the way the material exquisitely reflects the light, layering the space in a deep golden hue. Sublime.    

 

This article is published in the March- April 2017 issue of Metro.


Get Metro delivered to your inbox

Subscribe now

 

/MetromagnzL @Metromagnz @Metromagnz

 

 

MostReadArticlesCollectionWidget - Most Read - Used in articles
AdvertModule - Advert - M-Rec / Halfpage

Latest

Budget 2017: 'Rinky-dink' and 'communism by stealth'
73734 2017-05-25 16:14:28Z Politics

Budget 2017: 'Rinky-dink' and 'communism by stealt…

by RNZ

The government's budget is "rinky-dink" and will provide some minimum-wage earners with only one extra dollar a week, Labour says.

Read more
Budget 2017: What you need to know
73714 2017-05-25 14:13:58Z Politics

Budget 2017: What you need to know

by RNZ

Finance Minister Steven Joyce has revealed this year's Budget. Here's what you need to know - at a glance.

Read more
America's Cup: Where are all the women?
73693 2017-05-25 12:13:16Z Sport

America's Cup: Where are all the women?

by RNZ

When it comes to sport, the America's Cup is at the pinnacle for new technology, but it remains in the dark ages when it comes to gender equality.

Read more
Grandparents are unrecognised victims of the P crisis – we need to support them
73676 2017-05-25 10:48:28Z Social issues

Grandparents are unrecognised victims of the P cri…

by The Listener

Methamphetamine is the ultimate time bomb, with an ability to reach backwards as well as forwards in ruining the lives of three generations at once.

Read more
The 2017 World Press Photo exhibition is coming, plus more Auckland events
Breaking the code of silence: When police speak out against their own
70187 2017-05-25 00:00:00Z Social issues

Breaking the code of silence: When police speak ou…

by North & South

No greater moral courage is shown than by those who blow the whistle on colleagues they believe have acted violently.

Read more
How Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei is tackling the Auckland housing crisis
73576 2017-05-25 00:00:00Z Property

How Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei is tackling the Auckland h…

by Bianca Zander

Behind Bastion Point, in a suburb with a long and tumultuous history, a stronghold of 30 striking new houses occupies the ridgeline.

Read more
Forgotten spaces: A photographic lament for New Zealand's retail dead zones
73602 2017-05-25 00:00:00Z Property

Forgotten spaces: A photographic lament for New Ze…

by Jeremy Hansen

Some places forge ahead. Others stay the same, or slip slowly away.

Read more