Here's the Queen's Church, Here's the Steeple ... Hogarthian: All Human Life Is at St Martin's Let There Be Light: The [Pounds Sterling]36 Million Redevelopment at St Martin's Includes the Figure-of-Eight Pavilion, the Entrance to the Crypt, above, with Its Light-Well, Bottom Right; New East Windows in the Sanctuary, Top Right; and Brighter Facilities for the Homeless, Centre Right

Article excerpt

Byline: ROWAN MOORE

THE CHURCH of St Martinin-the-Fields, beneath its confident Portland Stone wrapper, is like a picture by Hogarth. All human life is there. It is the Queen's parish church, and a royal box, glazed and shuttered like a little saloon, flanks the altar.

On the other side is a similar box for the Admiralty. The church has also been, ever since the First World War, refuge for the capital's homeless and luckless.

It was designed to be a place of music, and still is. It is the centre of London's Chinese Christian community. The charities Shelter and Amnesty International started there and, with South Africa house next door, it became a base for protests against apartheid.

It is extraordinary and wonderful that this seemingly rigid building could prove so baggy and capacious as to house everyone from royalty to destitute teenagers, but until recently its structure was like that of HG Wells's Time Machine. Above, the Eloi could listen to early music played on authentic instruments beneath a cloud of exquisite plasterwork. Below, the down-and-out Morlocks occupied damp caves originally designed as burial places. While the homeless were always welcomed into the upper world of the church, the symbolism remained powerful.

More than a decade ago, the condition of the underground vaults drove the vicar, Nicholas Holtam, to start a rebuilding project that is now complete.

In the beginning the plan was only for some redecoration but it turned into the rebuilding of several layers of underground space, the restoration of the church, the rearrangement of a block of church-related buildings to the north of the church, and of the public space between them. The total cost of the project, designed by Eric Parry Architects, was [pounds sterling]36 million.

The biggest decision was to move the charity for the homeless, the Connection at St Martin-in-the-Fields, out of the vaults and into the range of buildings to the north, with the subterranean space now housing a cafe, shop, music rehearsal facilities and a hall for events. Much of this takes place underground or behind existing facades, but the change is signalled by a new glass entrance pavilion standing alongside the church. The glass object inserted among stone has become a commonplace of sensitive modern architecture but this one is more considered than most and more satisfying to experience.

Containing a stair and lift down to the underground spaces, the pavilion is in the shape of two glass cylinders partly merged to form a fat number eight in plan. A certain amount of the budget and a great deal of thought has gone into giving the pavilion just the right weight in the space: the shape is monumental but the material gives lightness; the glass is partly reflective, giving richly warped images of the buildings around, but also transparent. Additional sheets of glass are installed on the inside, creating a sense of multiple layers.

From the pavilion you descend into a big hall, a little too neutral and hangarlike, with shop, ticket office and the brick vaults of the church, now a cafe, off to one side. The space sinks further down into a dark wooden box containing an events and banqueting room.

Deeper into the subterranean world, now clean and well-lit, are offices and the rehearsal spaces. Above is the church itself, whiter and more lightfilled than before, the bubble-like quality of its delicate vault enhanced.

The pavilion stands in a pedestrian thoroughfare, a version of the route that has always passed alongside the church only now it has been made wider by relocating its railings. At the end of the same oblong space Parry has cut a hole in the pavement, of the same dimensions and eight-shape as the pavilion, but a void rather than a solid.

This is a light-well, illuminating the underground spaces. Between them, the pavilion and the void mark out the territory, asserting that change has happened. …