The following is an extract from a talk given by church member and architect Richard Heald, at a dinner held to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the re-
consecration of St. George’s in 1946, and the 25th anniversary of the admittance of St. George’s into the Diocese of Singapore in 1971.
“Architecture is about people and as we’ve heard tonight, St. George’s too is about people, and the people that have gone before us here. But the architecture is also about the three dimensional form of buildings –
about the joining of complex and subtle shapes in an honest and sophisticated way to form something that has a function. At the same time it is about all the details that go together to enhance that form and to tie all those functions together. And St. George’s Church is a classic illustration of this. But let me give you a little background.
But perhaps what I like most about it are its many gentle subtleties. A lot of these, as with any friendship really, you only begin to realize after you’ve known the building for a while. For instance, I have tried to draw this church several times. I apologise for one of those attempts, which for some reason has been put on the front of the service books! Although as I say, it is a very simple, open and honest building, it is also very beautifully proportioned and very subtle in its line. So what appears to be a fairly simple thing to draw, turns out to be very tricky. It really is very difficult to get it right in a drawing –
the perspective, the line, the sheer gravity and elegance of the building, are very difficult to capture and convey. You should try it some time.
Another aspect of course, and tonight is a great time to see this if you haven’t ever done so before, is the completely different character that the building assumes at night-
time to that which it has in the bright light of day. Very few modern buildings have this quality any more. From its solid, bluff and cheerful look in the daytime, this building at night, with the lights on inside and perhaps the sound of singing from within, or the sounds of the jungle all around, acquires an incredibly serene and gentle
The style of the architecture, the form of this church, harks back many, many centuries to the very first specifically Christian churches of the Romanesque period in Europe –
by that I mean the fourth and fifth century A.D. For it was not until then that Christendom had become sufficiently powerful and widespread to have generated and developed a style of building for worship that could be called unique. That style was called the “Basilica”.
The Christian basilica is basically a long rectangular barn, based on the already refined form of temple that the Greeks had perfected in ancient times and which the Romans had copied, a rectangle with a pitched roof and columns all round it. You came in at one end, where there are usually different doorways, and you faced the front. The action all happened up at the alter end, and whether you sat or wandered about, this was the basic format.
It was adapted over the centuries, got bigger and wider by various devices that I won’t bore you with now, and gained more and more elaborate features to add to their prominence within a city and to show off the Church’s ever increasing wealth and power. But the form has stayed very much the same and it is very functional. St. Paul’s Cathedral in London has this form, although you can hardly see it any more, and every little and great parish church in the world often has it too.
And as I said, St. George’s is a classic illustration of this. It is rather like a great big barn! It has the elegance and the feeling for function of a barn –
simple and very robust – and yet at the same time, because of its echoing of the classic Basilican shape, its details and its position, it has a clearly sacred aspect. The throwbacks to the temple shape are still there – the end- to- end symmetry, the pitched roof with the triangular gables at each end, the columns in the arches down each side and on each end, the distinct feel of an entrance at one end and an altar at the other – all that the Greeks had three and a half thousand years ago. The exact style is difficult to define. Some people think it has a Spanish or Moroccan feel to it, which I suppose is true, especially with its tiled roof. The arches in some ways are very Italian.
I love the building very much –
I’m sure we all do, for all kinds of reasons and for all the memories that it holds. As an architect, I love its space and its airiness, and the fact that it is so much of a really honest building, and so very beautifully built. By that I mean that nothing is covered up with fake panels or pretend surfaces that hide how a building is really made – what you see is what it is!
It is built of brick and the bricks that you see are all that there is –
carefully laid to hold together, to support the roof, to keep the rain out and the breeze coming through and to filter the sunlight so that it is bright but never too glaring, even in the bright light of midday here. And all of this is quite deliberate and has been designed like this. At the same time as doing all that, it has lots of lovely details too, that have all been skilfully made and are for no other purpose than our enjoyment and to refer back to a whole wealth of architectural styles that have gone before.
So there are “egg-
and- a- dart” moldings – a classic detail that was developed first by the Greeks – literally a row of eggs and little arrow heads or darts! Here at St. George’s they are carved into the bricks themselves: it would be interesting to know if they were carved before the bricks were fitted together or they were done in- situ, once the bricks were there and the mortar had set – I can’t tell which it is!
There are “dentil” moldings too, made out of the very shape of bricks themselves, just laying them in different ways. “Dentil” is from the Latin word for teeth –
and they look just like a row of teeth! And there are the various different shapes of the openings themselves which of course are all there for the good reason of generating a breeze through this great big barn – I mean church – in our lovely hot climate. They are all made from real, structural arches and, in the case of the circles, double- arches – one on top of the other. These are true load- bearing arches – if you took out the top- most brick, the “keystone”, then the arches would fall down!!
There are other little slots too, with two bricks resting against each other, rather like when we build a house of cards. And there are what we call segment arches too –
these are not semi- circular arches but just a segment of a circle which forms a flatter arch!
The roof too is a simple and honest tied truss, all made from timber, apart from the thin little steel ties that pull them together and stop the huge weight of the tiled roof from pushing the walls outwards! It’s all there –
you can see it and you can work it out for yourself. The trusses sit in tiny little crow- steps or, this time from the French word “corbiere” for crow, “corbels”, little stone brackets that are built into the brickwork between the arches.