The Chapel of St Albert the Great

The Chapel of St Albert the Great
Nominated by:
The Cockburn Association
Award category:
Project status:
Architect/Lead designer:
Stuart Allan of Simpson & Brown Architects

Summary Description

The new Chapel of Saint Albert the Great, in George Square, Edinburgh, built for the University Chaplaincy and friary for The Order of Preachers, the Dominican Order, was completed in late 2012. This new chapel is situated in the garden of one of the townhouses and replaces the old chapel which was located on the upper floor of the adjoining townhouses.
The new garden chapel not only provides a space for peace and worship, but also increases capacity and improves accessibility. A new access was created from Middle Meadow Walk, and, along with the siting, form and appearance of the building, the chapel is announced to the many that use this popular route.
The choice of materials and building form were important factors in the design of the building, chosen to achieve the peaceful space required of a chapel, and to connect it to its natural setting of the garden and Meadows beyond. Four tree-like Corten Steel columns support a curved, oak-lined timber roof over the altar and sanctuary spaces.
A thick masonry wall, constructed out of large clay blocks clad with sandstone, interprets the historic boundary between the townhouses and provides a solid mass and weight to the building form. Angled windows are formed within this wall to allow light in and also to maintain the focus towards the sanctuary, providing only oblique views of the garden.
A combination of clerestory glazing, ventilator windows and a lightwell with opening rooflights provides both natural light and ventilation. Daylight is introduced by mirrors and filtered through continuous oak slats along the length of the chapel.
The west wall behind the sanctuary is glazed and connects the chapel with the garden and the changing seasons, which plays an important part in the worship calendar. The external finish on the roof is sedum, again connecting the building to its garden setting, and minimising its visual impact from above.

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Supporting Statement

The contemporary design and use of traditional materials works very well and...

The contemporary design and use of traditional materials works very well and the quality of workmanship on the finishes is exceptional – the tooling of the ashlar, while traditional, makes a wonderfully crisp geometric detail. The space is clearly contemporary but the atmosphere is timeless and the materiality of the Hazeldene stone, oak, Corten, Portsoy marble quite sensuous. We cannot put forward a better reason than the description given by Ian Campbell, Professor of Architectural History and Theory at the University of Edinburgh in a recent issue of Art and Christianity:

The result is a place of profound peace. Whereas people often chatted after they entered the old chapel before Mass, now they tend to fall silent as they look to the altar and crucifix and beyond to the garden, sheltered by oak and stone but not cut off from the elements. Clearly a church, there is nothing obviously 'churchy' in the architecture, although one can perhaps see an echo of Le Corbusier's Chapel at Ronchamp in the variously-spaced and sized windows of the north wall, and the use of timber slats may recall Peter Zumthor's St Benedict Chapel. There is also continuity not only with the old chapel upstairs, with its timber floors, cream-coloured walls and view on to the garden, but also with the Neo-Gothic chapel of Blackfriars, the Dominican house of studies in Oxford, built from creamy (lime)stone, with a wooden roof and clear glass. The continuity goes back to the beginnings of the Order in the 13th Century, when the earliest constitutions stipulated that friaries should be 'modest and humble', with plain glass and (normally) not vaulted with stone. Timber roofs were both more 'modest' and better acoustically--essential for the Order of Preachers.

It might be thought that a church should aim to exclude the distractions of the outside world but Dominican spirituality embraces the world rather than fleeing from it like monks. The Edinburgh friary is dedicated to St Albertus Magnus, one of the greatest natural scientists of the Middle Ages. The appreciation of natural beauty is a way to God. In the new chapel it is all but impossible not to read the four branching supports as trees, forming a grove with the trees in the garden, with at their centre, the crucifix, the Tree of Life, reminiscent of a drawing by David Jones, himself a lay Dominican.

The chapel has not only grown out of Dominican tradition, but is also grounded in its place. The stone ashlar blocks carry tool marks like those ubiquitous in 18th-century Edinburgh. The curved roof recalls a ribbed barrel vault, common in late medieval Scottish architecture sometimes in timber as at King's College Chapel, Aberdeen, while timber is currently enjoying a renaissance among Scottish architects, both structurally and as cladding.

The new chapel looks back to its Dominican and Scottish roots, and yet is wholly contemporary. Its integrity will surely inspire future generations of students and others in Edinburgh. Not for nothing is the Dominican motto Veritas, 'Truth'.