East End Renewal: The 291 Gallery in Hackney
Exciting things happen when you mix the architecture of a nineteenth-century church with the needs of a modern art gallery. 291 is just such a place: a new gallery and with a restaurant and bar which has opened in a deconsecrated neo-gothic church in East London. Visiting 291 was a challenge: what does this clean, bright space say about the way the Church uses its own architectural inheritance?
291 is in a rather bleak neighbourhood. Although it is within easy walking distance of the financial centre, it is a world away. Hackney is one of those parts of London which suffered terribly at the hands of the Luftwaffe, only to be brutalised again by the city planners after the war. Many parts of the borough are interesting, but the urban fabric has been, it seems, irremediably torn. 291, in its beautifully refurbished building, is an exciting attempt to re-knit the urban fabric. In some sense, it does with art, food and drink what the Anglo-Catholics were trying to do in the nineteenth century-to create new institutions in the East End which would rival anything in the more posh quarters of London.
291 has shown a deep respect for the building, combined with a refreshing lack of reverence. This building is treated as the lovely find it is, but it is not enshrined like a fly in amber, as though it were a jewel of its kind. It is not. Instead, it is a handsome and generously proportioned building, decently built. There's been no attempt to turn back the clock, to 'restore' it to some former glory. The building has been reborn in a new guise, cleaned out and allowed to shine again, in a new form.
I say a lack of reverence because they have not retained any fittings but those which suit their needs. The exterior, of that grey-yellow brick so plentiful in London, has been scrubbed clean. The main entrance, a simple flat-lintel door, is perfectly modern. When you enter, you are immediately aware that this is a living space, a modern space. The entrance foyer is painted white, with a clean, modern reception desk. Ahead, in the former north aisle of the church, stands the bar. To the left, a door admits you to the nave.
What a sight the nave is. Devoid of pews, completely cleaned out, it stands as a pure architectural statement. Both side aisles have been walled off, creating a blind arcade down each side of the nave. The clerestory windows are filled with clear glass in diamond panes, and the room is filled with constantly changing natural light. The roof is a lovely and understated wooden affair, which seems quite opulent against the white purity of the walls and the warm yellow stone. The chancel is raised, but cleared of furniture, and a large screen has been erected across the whole front of the liturgical east end of the church to allow for video presentations.
I had a peek behind the screen: the altar and the altarpiece are still there. This is a gaudy thing. The altar was at some stage painted gold; the reredos is a garish blue. It does not represent a shining moment in the history of church furnishing, and is, in fact, best left covered. As you walk around this space, you become aware of little details. In the sedilia sits a small fragment of a statue, rescued from the exterior. It becomes a precious object, interesting in its brokenness and its patina of grime. There is also the memorial brass of the first vicar-a Victorian gentleman, fitted out in his priestly vestments, holding a chalice. The inscription informs us that he is `George Hervey, priest', with an MA from Clare College in Cambridge. How incongruously he now lies at rest in this setting. But then, I thought, looking at it, he is probably no more incongruous now than he was in the late nineteenth century: a graduate of Cambridge with High Church notions, labouring amongst the working poor of the East End.
The main bar is a more decorative space than the cleared-out nave. …