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Worth Abbey Church, East Sussex, England

Issue 66 Apr / May 2012 : Architecture : Church

LIGHTING DESIGN: dpa ARCHITECT: Heatherwick Studio

When dpa were asked by Heatherwick Studio to design the lighting for the Worth Abbey Church, they put forward a simple, pared down aesthetic but with modern light sources.

Worth Abbey is a Benedictine order Monastery in East Sussex in Southern England. The Abbey church was designed in the 1960’s by the well known ecclesiastical architect of the time, Francis Pollen. As part of the normal monastic activities including retreat facilities, the Abbey also has a large church building, which is open to the local community for worship. The church was unique due to the fact that the interior volume was the largest open space for religious worship in England at that time. This was made possible by the architect’s creative use of shipbuilding techniques to design the shell and structure of the building.

The Abbey Church is the most important building at Worth, both in terms of size and significance. The monks gather here six times a day to create a rhythm of prayer that is the foundation of the monastic life.

This sanctuary acts as a magnet for individuals who wish to pray alone, as well as for special services and meetings for Christians of different denominations.

The church building is characterised by a very large circular open plan space without central supporting columns. The perimeter walls have clerestory windows at high level with a large central lantern letting in significant amounts of daylight when available. The roof structure is a series of inclined concrete ‘spoke’ beams with timber panelling in between.

Within this open plan space are positioned two private chapels with enclosing walls which do not reach the roof. Consequently views of the impressive roof structure are mainly not interrupted.

The original architect-designed lighting scheme comprised simple cylindrical pendants and wall lights in a ‘rustic’ finish using tungsten PAR 38 lamps, a common light source in the ‘60s. The design of the light fixtures was in keeping with the simplicity of the architectural design and of monastic living. Unfortunately these extremely inefficient light sources were still being used at the beginning of the project in 2010.

This created significant maintenance issues for the Abbey. The main body of the church was significantly under-lit, so that reading tasks were very difficult and there was no accent or feature lighting to the architecture or religious focal points.

Generous support from the Abbey’s benefactors enabled the monks to engage the internationally-acclaimed designer Thomas Heatherwick, currently noted for his re-design of the London Routemaster bus, to re-create the interior space of the church. This included a unique set of monastic choir stalls built from American black walnut wood with matching congregational furniture capable of seating up to 676 worshippers. A Portland stone ambo (lecturn) now provides a powerful partner to the Church’s famous altar and baptismal font, completing the previously unfinished sanctuary space. While work was in progress regular events and daily worship, which includes monastic prayer sung in English six times a day, had to be moved to adjoining buildings.

dpa lighting design was appointed to work with Heatherwick Studio to develop a new lighting scheme and the specific brief that included many elements. Most important was to provide a new lighting scheme that significantly improved light levels for ambient and task requirements such as reading and that utilised much longer life lamps that could be maintained without the regular need for special high level access equipment. The lighting also had to cater for a variety of services and events at various times of day and year. Because of budget constraints existing luminaires were to be utilised as far as possible by being refurbished for more modern and suitable light sources. The new lighting scheme should also be fully dimmable with specific memorised lighting scenes and it should also provide feature and accent lighting as appropriate to the architectural design, religious focal points in a sensitive and restrained way. Finally the new lighting scheme should incorporate new integrated emergency lighting.

The existing luminaires from the 1960’s appeared like sections of rusty pipe with lamps inside and this very simple pared down aesthetic was to be continued, albeit in a technically more modern way.

The elements in the church to be illuminated included the school choir area, the monastic choir, the altar, font, ambo, the cross, the congregational seating, the private chapels, and the impressive architecture.

In re-using the existing luminaires, the obvious direction was to custom design a small family of luminaires in the same style which would carry out different tasks within the church. These consisted of refurbished single lamp pendants previously over the pews that were relocated over the new eliptical monastic choir; refurbished up /down perimeter wall lights for circulation and lighting of the ceiling, retained in position with some replicas added and a four-lamp version of the pendant providing ambient, task and accent lighting where required across the church.

In the old scheme, light levels over the pews measured an average of 70 lux with low uniformity. During the design period dpa concluded that at least 120 lux was required for satisfactory reading of hymnbooks. The achieved levels in the final design were in the region of 200 - 220 lux to cater for flexibility and lamp life extension through dimming.

The seating is lit from single lamp pendants above. They are also positioned in an eliptical formation to match the seating and provide very controlled downlighting to the monks. These are original pendants refurbished with new lamps. They were previously lighting the main congregation seating area very poorly with PAR 38 tungsten lamps. The new lamps are AR111 low voltage tungsten halogen, chosen for their quality of light, directionality and dimmability. All fittings were designed for consistent appearance and lamps are fully lockable to maintain focusing. Luminaires contain anti-glare louvres and emergency conversion where required.

The ambo is spotlit from a custom pendant at high level in the central drum and the vaulted timber roof above is uplit from the outside of the central drum.

A ten-lamp pendant was also located at high level in the central lantern to highlight the altar and ambo area. This fitting is mounted via a raise / lower motor system for maintenance.

Additional elements include high level surface mounted spotlights to the altar and font, concealed cold cathode uplighting to the timber roof and concealed LED uplighting to the central lantern soffit and drum.

The main ribbed timber roof is uplit with concealed cold cathode around the outside perimeter of the central drum. Lighting to the internal surfaces of the central drum are achieved with high powered LED luminaires concealed on top of the structural cross beams. Light is reflected from the soffit and softly illuminates the sides. In the centre of the drum just below the cross beams there is another custom made ten lamp pendant to provide ambient and accent lighting below. All lamps are individually adjustable and lockable, and the fixture is maintained with the help of a motorised raise and lower system, the motor of which is concealed from view. This allows the fixture to drop to the floor.

The cross was highlighted with very narrow beam spotlights but to a lesser extent as in the Benedictine Order the altar is the focal point of the church.

A Lutron system controls all the lighting with fourteen lighting scenes set up for various applications. The system is designed so that scenes can be added in to current scenes. This means that a much larger combination of scenes is possible.

Pics: James Newton


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