The Chapel of St John the Evangelist, York St John University
George Gaze Pace (1966)

As an Act of Worship

Fig. 1: Pace’s distinctive iron lettering on the entrance to the small chapel of Christ the Teacher, off the narthex of the main chapel. Photo: © Richard Burrows, 2022.

The architecture of George Gaze Pace (1915-1975) is not easily summarised because of the range of influences that went into the creation of his idiosyncratic aesthetic. Indeed, he advocated the principle originally voiced by the architect Ninian Comper of “unity through inclusion.”1 Pace’s deep appreciation and lifelong study of medieval and Victorian church architecture, as well as the work of Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier yielded sources he sought to fuse together to create churches which responded to the requirements of the post-war world and yet were also timeless expressions of the Christian faith. Pace had several commissions in York, including the Church of the Holy Redeemer, Acomb (1959-65, Grade II-listed), St. James the Deacon, Acomb (1970), and alterations at St. Martin le Grand, Coney Street (1961-68) discussed elsewhere on this website.

The Chapel at York St John was consecrated in 1966. York St. John was then still the Diocesan College in York (founded in 1841, its principal buildings are by G.T. Andrews). The Chapel is a complete example of Pace’s aesthetic, embracing everything from the angular outline of the building down to the design of lettering, the suspended pendant lights, the priest’s chair and desk, and the altar.

Building surrounded by grass and trees
Fig. 2: the chapel at York St John. Photo: © Richard Burrows, 2022.
Building with lawn
Fig. 3: the chapel at York St John. Photo: © Richard Burrows, 2022.

The Liturgical Movement in church architecture in the post-war decades involved a highly critical stance towards the bulk of new church architecture in Britain. Peter Hammond was perhaps the movement’s most influential writer through such works as Liturgy in Architecture (1960), in which he described the results of 1950s church building as “depressing in the extreme.”2 Pace – himself an influential writer and speaker, singled out by Hammond as “one of our leading church architects” – shared this disapproval and cynicism: “architects like to be given churches as it gives them opportunities to evolve strange shapes.”3

At the heart of the Liturgical Movement was the concept of people not “going to church”, but “being the church.”4 Hammond stated, “they are the Church, and not the passive recipients of spiritual consolation at the hands of a professional ministry.”5 Therefore the service of the Eucharist was something which could fulfil its full meaning only when celebrated collectively by the congregation and the clergy. ‘Strange shapes’ or superficially modern styling were an unnecessary distraction. One architectural response to this new Liturgical emphasis was to bring the altar forward into the body of the church to allow the congregation to gather around it on three sides. Unlike older arrangements in which the altar table was placed against the east wall, the new arrangement allowed the priest to face the people in the congregation and engage with them directly.

But for Pace the deeper problem was that “modern architecture could hardly be said to be in the service of the Church.”6 By contrast, the achievement of the medieval (and neo-medieval) buildings that he loved and admired was not only their beauty but that “Gothic architecture was pre-eminently able to give concrete form to the aspirations of the Church.”7 There is a sense of Pace consciously standing apart from his contemporaries: “In pride, earlier civilizations have mistakenly given monumentality to other than religious buildings. We have confused the matter more than any other civilization in our attempt to promote Government buildings, schools, power stations and even factories to classes far above themselves.”8 A vivid sense of what Pace meant by the loss of what he called the ‘organic culture’ of medieval times, and the qualities he believed were still vital for the church lies in his statement, itself reminiscent of the Arts and Crafts prophet William Lethaby: “there is no place in the present world (and thus in architecture) for mystery and other-worldly speculation” or for “wonder, worship, magic and symbolism.”9  

“The Church Architect must desire to build a church as an Act of Worship”, Pace stated.10  Even more than the quality of their buildings, which he thought often excelled the medieval architecture they were inspired by, Pace admired the church architects of the nineteenth century such as Augustus Welby Pugin, George Edmund Street and William Butterfield. He understood them as models of the architect whose work was an expression of faith: “To these men building a church was not just a commission but a way of life and an opportunity of humbly serving God with all their might.”11

At York St John’s Chapel, we see the results of these reflections realised. The chapel is laid out on an east-west axis which runs from the altar through to the middle of the nave to the west door and on across to the altar of the chapel of Christ the Teacher. From the nave, thin wedge-shaped aisles taper outward to the east. The narthex adjoins the west end of the chapel crossing the axis of the altar. It is a basilica, a nave with arcades and aisles, a church form of medieval and ultimately early Christian origin. The transepts are set on a diagonal to the axis of the nave, spreading out beyond its east wall to make a Y-shaped plan.

The chapel’s exterior is clad in a pale cream-grey brick.  The roof has an inverted structure, the western part with a longer and shallower pitch, and the eastern shorter but rising steeply to the east wall, marking the importance of the liturgical east. The liturgical east front is a large blank square wall, two transepts at a diagonal to the centre with narrow full-length windows.  The upper bricks of the walls of the main chapel are laid in sloping courses to follow the line of the roof, contrasting with the board-marked concrete tops of the flat-roofed narthex.

Circular hole in roof of dark room through which the sky can be seen
Fig. 4: view of the oculus/windows. Photo: © Richard Burrows, 2022.

Inside, the narthex is a tight space lit only by small round windows punched through the concrete roof in such a manner as to create a sense of heaviness, which gives the vestibule an almost subterranean feel. Niches are set into the wall either side of the door into the chapel.

The chapel is divided horizontally into arcade and clerestory by a thick section of concrete wall and vertically into six bays by piers. These are rectangular in section and of concrete up to the base of the clerestory, from which level they continue as the steel girders of the structural framework of the roof, painted black. This succession of bays creates a clear progression towards the altar.

At the same time, the inverted roof shape divides the main body of the chapel into two separate volumes, nave and chancel. The divide between these, the point to which the roof declines before rising up to the east wall, can be seen as a chancel arch. The compression of the space toward this is accompanied by the stepped height of the windows which get smaller toward this chancel arch and then taller, so that the biggest windows shine light on the entrance to and on the altar. Counteracting this is the outward movement of the aisles which taper away from the nave and have closely spaced floor to ceiling windows, and which lead to the transepts. The transepts have similar windows on two sides, giving them their own special atmosphere as the most light-filled spaces of the building. They echo the main body of the chapel in having roofs which rise up toward their end walls.

Aisle of chapel lines with pews, leading to doorway
Fig. 5: interior view of the chapel. Photo: © Richard Burrows, 2022.

The first two bays of the nave have concrete slab floors. This area seems to have a been a choir with Pace-designed stalls, now removed, perhaps for the clergy or senior members of college staff. A parquet floor covers the rest of the nave except the chancel area. The pews are placed in the next two and half bays, although the original plan shows pews arranged in the transepts as well.

Altar with suspended panels
Fig. 6: interior view of the chapel with altar. Photo: © Richard Burrows, 2022.

The end wall of the chapel is blank, painted white, which allows the altar and the black cross and candlesticks to show in sharp relief. The chancel is paved in stone, with three shallow steps up to the altar, a huge rectangular stone block on a smaller stone base, with wavy patterns created by the tooling. The gravitas of the altar is enhanced by its bare surface, hence the cross suspended on chains above it, the tall candlesticks placed beside it, and the highly sculptural sounding boards. The deliberate paring down to essentials reflects New Liturgical thinking: Hammond wrote that “the ancient tradition of the Church forbade the placing on the holy table itself of anything save what was necessary for the celebration of the eucharist.”12

The black metalwork is of Pace’s distinct aesthetic, including: pendant lights, the cross, candlesticks and iron lettering on the door of the Chapel of Christ the Teacher. There are Pace-designed priest’s chairs, and stone and wooden desks either side of the chancel.

In colour the interior is altogether warmer and more varied than the exterior, with cream and red brick, grey board-marked concrete, white painted brick and natural varnished parquet floor and wooden ceiling. 

The work of Pace, seen here through one example, perhaps embodies the tensions of C20 architecture so profoundly prominent in York as a whole: the desire for the maintenance of a deep-rooted temporality (and religiosity) in the face of modernity (and secularisation).