Architecture Focus: Somerset West Church

WORDS Biddi Rorke PHOTOS Paris Brummer PRODUCTION Annemarie Meintjes

An imposing circular silo in the heart of the winelands is a place of worship – and an architectural masterpiece.

When an existing church in the winelands of Somerset West became too small for its growing congregation, architect Jo Noero created an extraordinary new space. “As the new church needed to expand and contract easily to accommodate 450 to 900 people depending on the occasion, we converted the original church into a hall and performance space and built a new one approximately 25 metres away,” Jo says. A grassed courtyard links the two buildings – now converted into a hall and performance space – while the covered colonnade provides access to all spaces from the entrance gate.

Working closely with the minister, Gavin Millard, who trained as an architect before entering the ministry, Jo conceptualised a circular inner “drum”, large enough to accommodate 450 people. To incorporate the additional Christ Church congregation, a roofed square space fans out from the main circle, like a generous skirt. The dramatic vertical dimension of this circular space means the minister is never more than 15 metres from anyone in the audience.

The circular hanging light fitting was custom-made for the building.

Inside, natural light streams into this circular volume and a dramatic cross is formed by the play of the solid and void elements of the roof light. Fittings and finishes are pared down to the bare essentials: ash wood and white steel-framed chairs; a polished concrete floor; a white steel spiral staircase that leads to the sound control desk at the back of the church.

Multifaceted brick interior walls constructed breeze-block style further enclose the upper reaches of the main floor, creating an effective acoustic shell. “Circular forms are notoriously difficult acoustically and the brick wall was designed to mitigate this problem,” Jo explains. The result is such superb sound quality that the wider community is now using the space for concerts and other events.

Outside, additional breeze-block walls in concrete make for a friendly boundary between public and private, providing security while allowing cross-ventilation plus light and sun control. Rendered brickwork, galvanised steel and white painted concrete (rather than pricier off-shutter concrete) were the materials of choice throughout.

“The palette was selected to reflect and highlight the difference between luxury and necessity,” says Jo. “I have always loved the unabashed utilitarian nature of the buildings in the surrounding wine estates and Christ Church reflects some of the forms and materials found on these estates. I wanted to create a space in which everything was elevated from the necessary to the beautiful. Too much architecture nowadays is impoverished by the exaggeration of luxury and expensive materials.”