Belarusian Memorial Chapel
A church over seventy years in the making has received two RICS (London) Award nominations, in the ‘Community Benefit’ and ‘Design through Innovation’ categories. The Belarusian Memorial Chapel opened in December 2016, marking a series of firsts.
Not only is it the first purpose built Catholic Church of Byzantine rite in London, it is also the first memorial erected in Western Europe dedicated to the 1986 Chernobyl Nuclear disaster and was the first wooden church to be built in London since the Great Fire of 1666.
Drawing inspiration from traditional churches in Belarus, the timber-framed structure features a bell tower, a dome clad in shingles and an iron cross. London-based firm Spheron Architects were responsible for the design. Founder Tszwai So spoke to Premier Construction about the development:
“There has been a small Belarusian community in the area since the end of the Second World War. We’ve known the community since 2007. They always had an intention to have a purpose built place of worship but they never really had the opportunity to do so.
“The building was expected to serve two purposes. Obviously it had to work as a place of worship with a traditional layout but it also had to serve as a memorial to the victims of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
“The building is fairly recognisable as a church. We actually travelled to Belarus to conduct some research before we submitted the original plans. A lot of the design features were inspired by existing churches you find there. The idea for the vertical planks, for example, came from the trip. It’s also a genuine wooden structure so when you walk into the building it has a great, intense smell.
“Of course we were building a modern building; we were not trying to simply replicate what we’d seen. It’s a mixture of traditional and contemporary.”
From start to finish, support for the project was universal – from neighbours to the Vatican. The biggest challenge was actually a practical one. The site the church occupies is bordered by a number of protected trees meaning only a shallow foundation was allowed and each piece of timber had to arrive by crane.
The Chernobyl nuclear disaster is widely regarded as one of the worst of its kind in history. The effects continue to be felt today and, in addition to the impact on human life, it also caused the destruction and abandonment of many rural villages. The chapel serves as a reminder to both these points.
The significance of the project is easy to see, with the RICS nomination acting as the cherry on top of the cake. Tszwai expanded:
“It was a surprise but a great honour when we heard about the nomination. The project was not a usual commission but was for the benefit of a community that has wanted a proper place of worship for 70 years. It is also a place to remember the people affected by the Chernobyl disaster and is therefore very special.”