Ruin Renewal: Manchester's Upper Brook Chapel

 Photo: Mark Dyer

Photo: Mark Dyer

By Mark Dyer:

Nestled amongst the busy hum of traffic and surrounding car garages, I noticed the crumbling remnants of the Upper Brook Chapel when I first moved to Manchester in 2014.  Recalling a ruin from a Turner painting, the roofless Neo-Gothic church never failed to strike wonder in me. As unopposed vines and vegetation encroached upon the sandstone columns, the elements mounted a relentless assault upon the exposed innards of the building. The open husk of the nave, like the splayed ribcage of a fossilised whale, provided ideal nesting space for winged critters, whilst the intact rose window hinted at its former glory.

A fascination with ruined structures is nothing new. Like the above-mentioned painter, I never fail to recognise the poignancy of man’s futile attempts to defy nature and time. It is a sentiment that fascinated the early modern period when confronted with the remnants of antiquity, through to John Ruskin and the Romantics who contemplated man’s relationship with nature. It could be said that my reaction to the Upper Brook Chapel was commonplace, expected even, or, simply, inevitable.

Then, in early 2016, development work on the Chapel began. According to the aptly named website ‘Saving the Chapel,’ [1] Manchester City Council agreed a proposal from developer Church Converts to renovate the building into micro flats. This involved relocating the Manchester Islamic Academy, who were leasing the attached Sunday School from the Council. By mid-2016, the scaffolding that would support and surround the structure during these developments was erected.

However, the east-facing façade of the Chapel, which I frequently passed, was bedecked with a denser layer of intricate metal. This method of scaffolding is known as Double Scaffolding and is commonly adopted for stone masonry to avoid drilling into the walls. This criss-cross thicket, belted on like a muzzle, transformed the humble chapel ruin into an iron basilica. From the pavement, I was confronted by a fortified cathedral whose stockade loomed above passing pedestrians and would-be invaders. Indeed, the St George’s flag raised on top of the monolith in June 2016 cemented the image of a battle-weary and battered bastion.

We might liken the braced edifice to more modern trends in architecture. Consider Fritz Höger’s Chilehaus, Hamburg; or the Grundtvigs Church, Copenhagen, designed by Peder Jensen-Klint and Kaare Klint. The bare metal of the scaffolding in particular evoked in me a dystopian imagining of Jean Nouvel’s Fondation Cartier, Paris, as if the glass had melted away in some unknown catastrophe. Whether a fortified citadel, a fragment of expressionist architecture, or the future bones of one of our cultural houses, the Upper Brook Chapel had certainly been transformed from its Gothic origins.

So, through the preservation and development of one ruin, we are presented with another, very different, sort of ruin. Robert Smithson conceived the idea of ‘ruins in reverse’ [2] whereby the apparatus and detritus of construction work will grow out of ruin into the finished building. But Upper Brook Chapel was already a ruin and has been made more ruinous, so how might we articulate what is occurring here? Ruin regeneration? Ruin renewal? Ideologically, we might understand such an activity to be part of and run in parallel with urban renewal and cleansing. Aesthetically, however, it appears to work in contrary motion. Presented with such a dichotomy, my interpretation of the Chapel was more nuanced than before the development work began. The preservation of heritage has resulted in a temporary ruin that is somehow more commanding, more socially engaged, and more representative of how ruin can challenge us in the 21st Century.

 Illustration: Mark Dyer

Illustration: Mark Dyer

Then, one evening, during the full throws of development, I chanced upon a particular sight. In the wake of fading twilight, where the inky sky provided a fitting backdrop to the obsidian basilica, a lone construction site lamp warmly permeated through the vacant double lancet window and surrounding labyrinth of iron. This simple scene, serendipitously witnessed, instantly transformed the imposing ruined monolith into a tender and reverent sanctum.

The gentle glow amidst the darkness gave an air of solemnity that the Chapel had not hosted in years, though this prompted an image of private worship or individual spiritualism as opposed to the institutional congregation.  Consequently, I was reminded of those forced to worship in secret, away from persecution in its many guises. Post-Reformation? Post-Referendum. A sanctuary for the minority, the unwanted, the forgotten. The St George’s flag erected during the EU vote now cast a more sinister shadow across the windswept parapet.

This asylum buried in the stone masonry in turn reminded me of Lud’s Church, Staffordshire, England; a natural chasm in the rock that provided a safe place of worship for the Lollards in the 15th Century [3]. Similar to Upper Brook Chapel, this cleft in the Peak District features towering columns of Millstone Grit rock festooned in lichen, a dizzying open skylight and a quiet aura of solemnity. However, instead of being carved by and into nature, the Chapel has been formed as a result of additive manmade processes to form a composite structure whose social and contextual recollections are multifaceted and era-spanning.

When the development work of Upper Brook Chapel is complete, the church-cum-mosque will host plush apartments for students and young professionals, lining the pockets of shrewd property owners, if not the Council itself. Whilst I appreciate the importance of preserving our architectural heritage and history, as well as the financial viability of sustaining derelict buildings for non-commercial purposes, should stone and mortar be prioritised above existing religious and social networks and relationships? Where will these people now seek sanctuary?

About the author:
Mark is a composer of concert and installation music. His primary artistic focus is the ‘musical ruin’: the quotation and fragmentation of existing music, that might elicit a feeling in the listener analogous to that experienced when visiting an architectural ruin. Mark has worked with ensembles such as Psappha, OUT-TAKE Ensemble and Collective31, and has published in the new music journal Tempo. In September 2017, Mark will begin a PhD in Composition at the Royal Northern College of Music, supported by an AHRC scholarship awarded by the North West Consortium DTP. Listen to his music at http://www.markdyercomposer.com/

Notes:
[1] Czero Developments. (2017) Saving the Chapel. [Online] [Accessed 27th February 2017] http://www.savingchapel.com
[2] Smithson, R. (2011) ‘A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic,’ In Dillon, B. (ed.) Ruins. London: Whitechapel Art Gallery, p.49.
[3] Cressbrook Multimedia. (2017) Lud’s Church. [Online] [Accessed 28th February 2017] https://www.peakdistrictinformation.com/visits/ludschurch.php