A central aim of the Empowering Design Practices project is to develop methods, tools, resources and mechanisms to support people embarking on projects for refurbishing and enhancing local places of worship. But before we can develop new things, we need to look at past practice: How did other people do it? How did their journey look like? What kind of places they created? What are the pitfalls of the process and how they can be overcome?
To inform our own practice, we therefore set up a strand of work called Learning from the Past. The research includes interviews, focus groups, workshops, and a number of visits to past projects. These site visits offer a way to experience the place and engage with the people who relate to it: those who were originally involved in envisioning a new future for their building and who saw it through, but also current users, worshipers, visitors, or people using its services.
In this blog, I would like to recount our first site visit to St. Luke’s Church in Oxford and share some thoughts and observations.
The site visit
We were all excited about visiting St. Luke’s. Becky Payne (our valued expert on sustaining historic places of worship) had already written a case study about the project. St. Luke’s is not a renovation project like the ones we intend to focus on for our support, but the church was rebuilt retaining to a great extend the footprint and character of the original building. A really inspiring example, from which we felt we can learn a lot, particularly about the way the steering team led the re-design process while creatively engaging with the wider community in one of the poorer parts of Oxford.
It helped that it was a glorious day when we visited, but the first impressions approaching the building were really positive. The entry to the building was smooth and the main hall looked big, bright and tidy. The space gave the impression of a well looked after community centre but it combined a sense of spirituality. In this minimalist space, a beautiful unconventional painting of the last supper drew our attention instantly conveying so much about the principles behind the creation of this space.
Following a quick lunch and introductions to the project and to each other we divided in three groups to walk around the building. Each group was tasked with discussing a different topic: architecture, heritage, and community, particularly focussing on how changes in the building have affected people’s lives and perceptions.
The building was designed to allow wheelchair access, which necessitated moving the entrance to the side. This was originally met with disapproval by the local authority planners, who expected to have an entrance to such a public building on the front and at a distance from the surrounding private flats. Indeed we found out that there were many negotiations between the architect, the steering committee and the council throughout the whole process, and people in the community also came in with their perceptions and requirements about the place, whether for a small thing like the sink in the Chill Out room or something bigger, like the façade of the building.
‘Surprising some of the young people find it quite difficult to adjust to the new building as they so loved the old building even thought it was falling apart and everything, they had a very strong sense of ownership over it. I think they thought ‘this brand new building doesn’t feel like our yet’.
We did some art projects; they made a Celtic cross out of clay which is hanging in there, and (…) they have got their own chalk board thing and just things that make them feel it is their building as well.’
‘In some ways we have established a new heritage haven’t we?
The second part of our visit focussed on mapping milestones in the process from the start of the project until now, but also the assets associated with key events: the people, skills, tools and resources that made things happen. We used a map with some key events pre-drawn, based on the interview we had already conducted with the church warden.
It was a lively discussion and bit more disordered than we had planned! Thinking about the key events and their succession, helped participants recall and reflect on the process. Doing this as a group helped create a more complete picture. The initial phases of the project drew most of their attention, as they were rightly the most intensive, the most difficult and the most defining. The process had its highs and lows, and there were many setbacks as well as achievements.
Constant community engagement was one of the key characteristics of the project that made it so successful, and so was working in partnership with other local faith and secular organisations; engaging with local media; and combining multiple sources of funding.
‘Well, we haven’t touched on faith. For us, this project was part of the outworking of our faith, not just a kind of blind optimism, it was actually looking for guidance, trying to listen’
‘We also had a fundamental belief in St Luke’s for me. I knew there needed to be a St Luke’s here. It was unlike other churches, it served a need that could not be met in other ways’
‘It was meeting the people around here and realising that St Luke’s can help people get a sense of belonging and feel valued, things that other churches aren’t able to do’
St Luke’s moto is ‘love in action’. This was what drove the process and what drives the group’s everyday activities and use of the space now.
During the workshop a group of three youngsters appeared on the door. They hesitated a bit to get in when they saw us, but they were immediately welcomed in. We could see they felt at home and one was confident enough to share his view about the place. I thought, maybe that is where it all starts, in giving people voice and confidence.
I feel privileged to have met the people and I have learned a lot. Below I include a list of top tips that the team suggested to us, to help others embarking on a similar journey.
Watch this space for more blogs about our visits to past projects.
Top tips from St. Luke's, Oxford
- Capturing imagination – visualising the project
- Ensuring a mix of skills – getting people in early
- Flexible design of project – contingency
- Engage the community
- Be clear about what you are/your values
- Patience and insistence
- Design to allow mix of as many groups/users as possible
- See if you can phase the project
- Lottery funding useful early on (but only early on)
- Divide responsibilities and respect each other’s skills