Max Lamb redesigns 1960s church interiors
London designer Max Lamb has created a new altar, sanctuary floor and paschal and altar candlesticks for St John Chrysostom Church in Peckham, London
There’s something raw, modest and pure about St John Chrysostom’s Church in Peckham, says designer Max Lamb, who has created a new altar, shrine floor, altar candlesticks and Paschal candlestick for the modernist Anglican Church in South London. “It’s not adorned with a lot of decorations or carvings like you would see in other churches,” he adds.
Completed in 1966 and replacing two earlier parish churches which had been bombed during the Second World War, St John Chrysostom has a pitched copper roof, a sawn softwood ceiling and a tower above the sanctuary which provides spectacular indirect lighting to the space below. “When you’re in the congregation looking at the altar, you don’t see any windows and you can’t see where the light is coming from,” Lamb says. “So he creates this diagonal shaft of light that creates dramatic effects and shadows.”
Commissioned by the church on behalf of the Diocese of Southwark and produced by art curator and producer Aldo Rinaldi, the project saw Lamb respond to the austere beauty of the building’s architecture and the simplicity of its material palette in keeping its offerings in the same sober but poetic style and sticking to similar materials.
However, he wanted the additional elements to be present. “When I first visited the church the original altar was brick and wood and the effect of the brick altar against a brick wall background meant it was almost invisible .” Lamb instead opted for Portland stone for the altar and candlesticks, which not only contrasts well with the surroundings but is also a nod to the fact that one of the earlier churches on the site – St Jude’s – had been built of Portland stone. “One of the site’s stone columns was retained and turned into a baptismal font,” says Lamb. Two other small unusual features made of the same limestone are found in the church: a cantilevered seat behind the altar and a wall plaque just above.
The altar is made of four slabs of Portland stone held together with slot joints and a fifth slab inserted into all four walls. With its cross designs at the four corners where the legs meet and its recessed base designed so the priest can stand closer to the altar, the finished object looks imposing but has an attractive floating quality despite its weight.
Both candlesticks are made of the same sedimentary stone and are cylindrical in shape, while the imposing Paschal candlestick is also cylindrical and made of Portland stone but is a little taller (1.35m) and has a base reclaimed teak for stability that perfectly repeats the cross pattern of the altar.
The last part of the church that Lamb tackled was the raised floor of the stepped sanctuary which had been covered in cork and was in poor condition. “I’m generally very supportive of cork, but decided it was another extraneous element in this case, in the sense that it wasn’t a material present elsewhere, so my proposal was not not to add anything new here but to remove the old and buff the concrete underneath until it looks polished.
The new-old floor complements the existing concrete elements in the church, such as the original stained glass and concrete windows designed by Susan Johnson and the large concrete base for the organ pipes. The result, enhanced by highly effective natural and artificial lighting (thanks to a recent refurbishment), is a quietly dramatic, uplifting and meditative space with the sculptural altar and candlesticks at its heart. §