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A Facade In The Borough

October 21, 2019
by the gentle author

My GHASTLY FACADISM lecture is at 7pm on Monday 4th November at The Wash Houses, The Cass, London Metropolitan University, 25 Old Castle St, E1 7NT. Click here to book your ticket

I undertook a melancholic pilgrimage down to the Borough to take this photograph of the grade II listed St George’s Presbyterian Chapel of 1846, currently being demolished apart from the facade and the side wall that you see in this picture.

As I stood in Borough Rd to take my photo, passersby halted in wonder to take their own pictures of this poignant spectacle, which is being disassembled before our eyes. All were astonished that an historic building of such grace and dignity should be subject to this fate. It was a sight which suited the grey autumn day.

St Georges Presbyterian Chapel began with elevated aspirations, opening on 7th June 1846 as the first Presbyterian church south of the river. The Presbyterian movement welcomed lay preachers, democratising the church, and in 1844 a committee was formed led by Rev Joseph Fisher ‘to keep the cause alive’ by raising funds and commissioning a purpose built chapel. It offered capacity for 800 worshippers plus a school room, ‘thoroughly repaired and beautified’ at the cost of £161 in 1862.

Yet the spiritual flame of Presbyterianism wavered in the Borough and by 1869 there were no more than 140 members, 130 by 1890 and only 54 in 1899. The congregation was dissolved in 1901 and the lease of the chapel sold to R Hoe & Co, printing machine manufacturers who operated there until the nineteen-eighties.

The choice of a stucco facade in the classical style with four Doric pillars was adopted by the Presbyterians as an alternative to the gothic which was associated with the Church of England. Apart from this grand architectural gesture, the chapel was unadorned and utilitarian in its construction, with the interior stripped out in 1901 when it became a factory for printing machines.

In recent years, the chapel stood derelict until it was acquired by London South Bank University. The current demolition is in preparation for integrating the facade into their extended campus, which LSBU claim will be ‘worthy of their newly enhanced academic status.’

A glance at their plans reveals that the facade will serve as the rear of a new theatre, completely ignoring its architectural form which serves to create a grand entrance. There are many precedents where chapels have been repurposed as performance spaces and where new theatres have been constructed within existing structures, offering a charged space, rich with historical context.

Such a decision would have preserved the form of the grade ll listed chapel intact, avoided the environmentally destructive and wasteful demolition and construction of a new building, and – most importantly – maintained a connection between the nineteenth and twenty-first century congregations on this spot.

Missing this opportunity and rejecting the opportunity of a conversation, LSBU’s new building turns its back on the past, rendering the beautiful old facade empty and redundant. It is a disappointing decision by an academic institution which you hope would show more respect to its immediate environment and historic context.

St George’s Chapel, 1935 (photo courtesy of Southwark Library Archives)

St Georges Chapel, Borough Rd, in the sixties

The facade of St George’s Chapel as the back entrance of the new building – white lines indicate the existing trees.

The original sketch for the LSBU campus shows the chapel intact – so what went wrong?

London South Bank University’s final plan for their new campus with the new theatre building and the facade of St George’s Chapel (in pink) serving as the back entrance.

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The Creeping Plague of Ghastly Facadism

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